The Lunch

(This is a biography of Alberto Cori, Italian born scientist and artist. It starts with current events and weaves in recollections from his entire life about his passions for knowledge, arts, women and sexuality. The biography is being written and appears in two posts: 1. The last story added, and 2. The full biography — The Lunch — consisting of all stories up to this point).

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Their hands met and held tightly while crossing the street to get to his car. Three hours had flown by in what had started as a simple lunch. The first time they had met outside the dance floor. As he dropped her off, a friendly hug and kiss had turned passionate and hungry. Alberto drove home in a daze and couldn’t get her off his mind. For two nights the image of Sandy, and the thought of a shift in his life that was begging to happen kept him awake. He had not felt that way since the time he had first laid eyes on the girl who became his second wife. They were in a modern dance class and Karen was walking gracefully in front of him. He couldn’t help but staring at her perfectly shaped behind wrapped in a tight leotard. That had happened 30+ years earlier. After a 15 marriage and his second divorce, Alberto had decided that traditional marriage was not a relationship structure he wanted to adopt again. Living in the San Francisco area he had become aware of the polyamory community and had been attracted to their philosophy of acceptance of multiple partners and honest communication among all parties… at least in principle.

But old habit are hard to break, and he had remained essentially monogamous. After his divorce he had become involved in ballroom dancing, in part because of his continuing love of dance, and in part to meet women. After a few years he switched to Argentine Tango. He had started doing it out of curiosity, to understand how it differed from the tango danced as part of ballroom. It was a completely different community and the dance felt completely different, stunningly intimate and capable of producing amazing “highs”. In the tango community he found his next long term relationship, a Turkish woman, Aylin. They were dancing one night, and when the music ended their embrace did not. They remained “glued” to each other until the music started again… and they knew something special had happened.

Aylin wanted to be monogamous, but she accepted going to poly events and was very interested in pushing their sexual comfort zone, which surprised him, as he thought of Turkey as a very traditional and conservative country. Alberto did not push his poly interest, hoping instead that she would slowly come to accept that life-style and possibly even be “first” in taking on another partner. Which she did. Unfortunately shortly after that they broke up, for completely unrelated reasons. That was an interesting story, but I will tell it another time.

In spite of his self-chosen poly label he still found it easy and comfortable to focus on a “primary” relationship (as defined in poly jargon), which, in the eyes of most friends and relatives was completely indistinguishable from a monogamous relationship, but he enjoyed the idea of the implied freedom that came with the poly “contract”. The freedom to flirt, to allow himself to be attracted to other women without the need to hide those feelings, and without the constant battle between the desire to express his sexuality and the need to live in integrity with the promise of monogamy. In his native Italian culture these feelings are often dealt with simply by cheating, but he would not allow himself that form of freedom. Since childhood he had become accustomed to the struggle of resisting “temptation”, as these feelings were defined in his catholic religious upbringing. At that time it wasn’t even about monogamy and cheating, rather it permeated any expression of sexuality, even in thoughts, and he wouldn’t bring himself to the possibility of committing “sin”, and thus “contribute to the suffering of Christ on the cross”. In his frame of mind you either believed in those ideas or you didn’t, and, if you did, the suffering of Christ “for our sins” was as real as if someone would be tortured today because of his actions. He just couldn’t bring himself to being a “sinner”, in spite of the catholic ritual of “confession” and the constant forgiveness Catholics can count on. He didn’t want to be “forgiven”. He was “strong”enough to resist sexual temptations, and he “resisted” until the age of 25, fighting thoughts of sex, and ultimately even thoughts of suicide; the only time in his life he entertained such thoughts. At 25, in graduate school, a woman friend, and not one he was dating, took pity on him and finally opened the “door” to his sexual life! Another interesting story I’ll come back to.

He entered both his marriages with the same “Catholic” attitude, but not motivated by religion this time. He had stopped practicing soon after losing his virginity, and had harbored a great deal of resentment for having suppressed his sexuality during the time when it could have been most exciting and powerful. Still his vows of fidelity were serious business and he felt he had to be “strong” enough to fend off temptations to stray. The suffering he would cause to his wife had taken the place of the suffering of Christ, and for that too there was no option of weakness or seeking forgiveness. Unfortunately Kathy, the girl he had fallen in love with in the dance class, and who became his second wife, did not recognize his determination to remain faithful, and was consumed by a jealousy he found both misplaced and suffocating. He left that marriage and vowed never to put himself again in that predicament.

But finding partners that would accept the idea of open or poly relationships, even if only in principle, was not easy. The main problem was that within the poly community, whose events he attended regularly, he had not been attracted to many women, and he soon understood that poly did not necessarily mean “available”, and he remained mostly at the periphery of the networks of relationships that tend to form in that community. The women he was mostly and frequently attracted to were instead in the Argentine Tango community, and soon after his breakup from Aylin another “tanguera” stepped into the picture. Alberto was considered a fairly advanced dancer, and Alyson seemed thrilled to be asked to dance. “Me?” she said incredulously, pointing her finger to herself, after seeing Alberto’s “nod”, known in the Tango community as “cabeseo”, a technique for inviting women to dance from a distance. Nothing more than eye contact, often with a slight raising of eye-brows and nod of the head, but it allows two things: one is to communicate at a distance without the potential embarrassment of walking across a dance floor only to be turned down, and the second one, especially for the woman, is NOT to communicate, i.e. it offers the opportunity to completely ignore the cabeseo, as if never seen. This leaves the man wondering whether he was, in fact, turned down or simply not seen. A kind of “ego protection system”.

Alyson was an attractive woman in her forties, single mom of an 8 year old. They started dating, and Alberto brought up the poly thing right away, as he usually felt he had to do. Her reply, in a piano bar in Oakland, after a Milonga (Argentine Tango event) was that her choice would be monogamy, but she was willing to see what polyamory “would look like” with him. She was psychotherapist and had lived in the Bay Area for a few years among therapists, counselors and general social experimenters, and, while not identifying as poly, she was familiar enough with the concept not to be freaked out by it, and had the understanding that the label can be applied to a wide range of behaviors.

They settled into a conventional relationship that was identified as monogamous by all their friends, except that, interestingly, she chose to continue a sexual relationship with a former boyfriend “because you let me…”, she would tell Alberto. He, in turn, limited his own “outside” sexuality to sporadic party events or camps of the Network for a New Culture (I will talk about this group later on). Basically their agreement was that outside sex would be ok if done with protection, and if it did not interfere with their usual time together, which quickly became a routine of 3 or 4 nights a week in their respective homes, usually after milongas.

Alberto was very busy with his full time job as scientist/engineer at NASA, and the addition of his many outside interests, such as Tango, singing, and taking classes in music theory, guitar and piano. He was happy with the relative freedom he felt he had with Alyson, a freedom that would have been inconceivable with his second wife, so he didn’t have the time or much desire to pursue other relationships. He felt some jealousy for Alyson’s continuing relationship with her “ex”, but that was part of the deal, and Alyson was not forthcoming about details or frequency of her encounters. In similar circumstances some people insists on full continuous disclosure, but they settled instead on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach, as long as there was nothing that would challenge or shake up their relationship and time together.

Alberto found it immediately ironic that relating to her sexually was more challenging than it had ever been with anybody else…. but he felt that they could work on it and was willing to stick with it. They had a situation when she was invited to go spend a (sexual, but she defined it as “energetic”) weekend with a couple…and accepted. Alberto was upset, not by jealousy motivated by “fear of loss”, but by envy and feeling of exclusion from something he would have loved being part of. She knew that that was a deep erotic fantasy for him, and that he often talked about making fantasies come true if at all possible, and it upset him that she didn’t even bring up that possibility with the couple. At that point he felt that if he was being excluded from her erotic world he should find his own separate one, and he joined the online dating site OKCupid mainly to find a “play” partner… but he didn’t pursue the idea, and this was certainly due in part to the events that ensued.

He had begun to question why he was staying in the relationship, and some of the good reasons were how well he felt they were able to communicate, and the fact that he did feel he had more freedom than in a any of his “traditional” relationships, and that was very important to him, but he often found himself thinking of what he didn’t like about her taste and home life style and how it would be difficult for him to share a house with her.

Then one night he felt a lump in her left breast. Alberto was temped to ignore it, as it would probably make her worry needlessly about something that would surely tun out to be a harmless cyst … But he did tell her, and it was a good this he did, as it may have saved her life! As a stage 2b it might have progressed quickly to greater levels of danger. It was a hard time, but after a few months of typical cancer vicissitudes, Alyson was left with a new lease on life and a breast that survived a lumpectomy. Of course this was a very vulnerable time for her, and any thought of leaving the relationship, for any reason, was dismissed. Still Alberto was happy he had his own place even though that meant a lot of bridge crossings!

Then, a year later, about 2 years into their relationship, her house burned down. It happened in the middle of the night while she was at at Aleberto’s house in Pacifica. The fire had started in her living room and the fire officials were not able to established the cause.

Most of her furniture burned, but her bedroom with clothes and hundreds of books and papers and photos survived the fire, albeit by being completely soaked wet by the water poured on the house by the fire-fighters. All that stuff ended up in Alberto’s house, first to dry, then to occupy every closet and nook and cranny. She and her son moved in too. It was supposed to be temporary. They were still there when Alberto and Sandy had their lunch.

After a few months he had encouraged her to look for a place. He had a nice large house, acquired only a year before, with enough space for a separate in-law apartment for his 22 year old son, and for community and dance activities he was planning to have there. Anything she would find livable and comfortable enough would be beyond her means. She stopped looking and started paying Alberto some rent (still below what a “regular” roommate would pay). They spoke occasionally about the fact that this had not been a “plan” they had agreed on, but Alberto was simply unable to simply say “you need to find your own place”. He kept brainstorming on how he might be able to help her. He had thought of buying a house with her, but she had zero means. He might have been able to buy one and have her pay him rent, but, again, anything she might like would be beyond his means and her ability to pay enough rent to cover enough of the mortgage.

During this time, whenever Alberto had a chance to unload feelings in counseling situations or workshops, he harped over and over again about feeling trapped in a situation he did not want to be in, and feeling too guilty to take action. He was “working” on trying to figure out how he might be able to really embrace and accepts his feelings and needs without guilt, but he wasn’t having had much success. One friend told him: “sometimes one has to accept feeling guilty”.

Alberto did manage to bring up these feelings with Alyson, during some of their check-in times, but still without placing demands or ultimatums, and coming across more as in search for solutions and compromises. To complicate things she was now trying to find a new job and re-start her private practice (read: : “more need of support”).

Guilt was not the only reason for Alberto’s lack of assertiveness regarding his need to have his house “back”. Some counseling training he had been involved in recently (another one of his interests) convinced him that it was a good idea to try and separate actual “needs” from “ desires” or “perceived solutions”. For instance, monogamy is not a “need”. It is a “perceived solution”, a solution to underlying basic needs such as “security”, “companionship” etc. Sometimes it is possible to address and satisfy the same needs with a different solution (yes.. “sometimes”..)

So, in the context of identifying what needs he was trying to address by asking her to move out, what came up was “freedom” and continuing evolution of his house as a community building project, and a place for self-expression and social experimentation.

Alyson’s position was that, in exchange for her ability to continue to live there, he could have all the freedom he wanted. The point was that they already had a “freedom” agreement…. but, it’s really not the same when you are in fact living with somebody, and there is the additional problem of how others (not in the poly/open community) perceive the situation from “outside”, still they would attempt to effectively push in that direction. So Alberto had decided to see what THAT “would look like”, and the opportunity to do so had finally happened. The rubber was finally meeting the road.

The rubber meets the road

About two months before the lunch, Alberto had signed up for a cooking class at the Blue Ribbon school of culinary arts in San Francisco. It had been a special discount deal he had almost forgotten about, so he ended up taking the only remaining class “How to make pizza from scratch” before expiration. He had intended to go with Alyson, but she had made other plans. So he invited Sandy with a Facebook message. She also could not come, but managed to convey genuine disappointment and interest in possible future events.

Alyson had introduced Sandy to Alberto as an “old friend” when she had started dancing Tango, and he had been immediately attracted to her. Even as a beginning dancer she had that wonderful sense of connection that is so important in Tango, even when one is still unable to “read” the patterns suggested by the leader. In typical Milonga fashion Alberto would dance with Sandy just one “tanda” (a set of three or four songs), as it tends to be socially acceptable to dance more than one tanda only with your partner, if you came to the event with one (usually Alyson). But Alberto always tried to seek her out for at least that one tanda, if she was there, even though tangueros typically prefer to invite followers who dance at the “same level”. Sandy was grateful to be asked, but usually very apologetic about any missteps, for which she always blamed herself, until Alberto proposed a “contract” whereby she would never again apologize! After all it’s always the leader’s responsibility to dance at a level that makes the follower feel completely comfortable. He would have loved to see her outside the tango context, but, within the tango community, his partner was Alyson, and women in that community cultivate a degree of loyalty towards other women, and, of course, especially women whom they considered friends, unless of course passions and cheating took over with all ensuing inevitable dramas. That was Alberto’s predicament w/r to his desire to have an open relationship. Alyson preferred to keep their poly agreement private, and that made it very hard to become involved with other tangueras, beyond innocent flirting. At the same time women in the poly community with whom he would have considered a long term (even if secondary) relationship had not been interested or available. This situation had led Alyson to think that “monogamy was in his bones”, as she would say sometimes, and his interest in open relationships was more “theoretical”. She was very comfortable believing in that notion. Meanwhile during the next couple of years, Sandy had become a good dancer, and had even spent a year in Buenos Aires, the Mecca of tango. She had been back only for a few months and trying to nurse a foot ligament injury when Alberto invited her to the cooking class.

Next on the list to invite to the event was Rachel, another tanguera he had met recently at a tango house party. She accepted enthusiastically, even though pizza “was not her thing”. Rachel was a beginning/intermediate tanguera very eager to meet, and dance with, leaders she considered “good”. Even though a cooking class was not a tango event she was happy to make contact with Alberto and hopeful to be invited to Milongas. She did not know Alyson or their relationship status.

They had fun in the class, returning home with a few small pizzas and some extra dough to be frozen. It was still early in the afternoon, so they decided to take a walk on Ocean Beach , not too far from where Rachel lived. It was a beautiful late spring day, with a gentle breeze, flying kites, couple strolling by smiling and holding hands, happy dogs chasing birds. Alberto found himself attracted to her. They talked about their lives and relationships. Alberto suggested an early dinner at the Cliff House, a historic place near the ruins of what once were the Sutro Baths, a resort where, at the turn of the century, San Franciscans could bathe in warmed up ocean waters under a glass ceiling. They sat in the bar area, where they could have snacks and a beautiful ocean view. Rachel mused about how nice it was that the cooking school event had turned into a “date”. Alberto took the hint, and, smiling back, decided that it was time to talk about his open relationships agreements and intentions, adding that this was invariably the time when the woman “ran for the hills”. She didn’t. She talked about being in a messy relationship she wanted to leave, and the worst thing about it was her partner’s constant lying about other women and his abusive verbal behavior. There were other issues too, that made Alberto uncomfortable about becoming involved with Rachel, but they could stick with tango and see where their friendship might go. There was no hurry. They kissed when he dropped her off. The kiss was hesitant but sweet, as appropriate for a tentative “first date”.

Part of the agreement Alberto had with Alyson was that one night a week would be “for himself”. He would plan for that night early in the week to give Alyson advanced notice and he would typically go to parties or events Alyson was not interested in. Now he would plan to go out with Rachel, as he told Alyson, and Alyson was not happy. She appreciated being told, and accepted that as part of their agreement, but she had to process the fact that perhaps the “poly thing” was real. That reaction is not unusual even among folks who fully accept the idea of polyamory or open relationships. Jealousy comes up, inevitably for most. This is what comes up in all poly community potlucks, designed specifically to give people an opportunity to vent feeling and get support from people who have already been down that road. The poly community invented the term “compersion”, as an ideal to strive for, and that’s the ability to rejoice in the fact that your partner is having fun with somebody else. The opposite of jealousy. Alberto had known very few people who could claim that as an easy emotion to tap into. Still they feel it is worth it, as did Alberto when Aylin had told him about her new partner.

Alyson had stopped seeing her “ex” a couple of years earlier, and was now in a completely monogamous frame of mind. Rachel was a threat to their relationship. That is when jealousy is most difficult, and not just envy, or a feeling of momentary exclusion, like Alberto had felt when Alyson had joined the couple in Santa Cruz. All Alberto could do, short of giving up, was to continue reassuring Alyson that the relationship with Rachel would remain “secondary” and was not an excuse, or the motivation, for a break-up. Alberto did mean that, because there was much about Rachel that made him uneasy, and because he really wanted to see if the type of relationship he had envisioned for himself, with or without Alyson, was feasible. The rubber had finally met the road. Rachel was invited to a tango workshop held at Alberto’s house. She met Alyson. They liked each other (or so each said independently). “Will you be back tonight?” Alyson would ask when Alberto had his (still sporadic) dates with Rachel. The answer was still “yes”.

Then “the lunch” happened.

100%

During the last few months, since her return from Buenos Aires, Sandy kept popping into Alberto’s mind. She was the first friend he would invite to events when Alyson wasn’t available or interested, or when it was his “free night”. There was a private tango event at a friend’s house, a screening for an environmental anti-nuclear film produced by another film maker friend, and the cooking class. All these were private facebook invitations, and she was unable to make any of these, but she invariably sounded genuine about her regrets and Alberto chose to ignore the “twice turned down” rule. In between invitations there was also some occasional message banter, sometimes initiated by Sandy with a simple “How are you?”. Then Sandy started sharing her worries about a foot injury and the likelihood of surgery with consequent down time, so further invitations involving tango were out of the question. Ok, one more try, how about lunch?

It was a small Italian restaurant in Oakland. They arrived at 1pm. Alberto had made an Open Table reservation, but only a couple of other tables were still occupied. Still it felt warm and friendly and it seemed like they were not going to be rushed out, which turned out to be a very good thing. The conversation started intense and immediate. When they finally managed to pay attention to the menu, after a few delicate inquires from the server, they decided on items they would share and on a bottle of wine, which they thought might be overkill for the lunch, but “they could always bring home what’s left”, Sandy suggested. They had never really spend much time talking, because it’s not good tango etiquette to talk while dancing, and focusing on the dance and the music had always felt good anyway, so they had just talked in small spurts in between the 3 or 4 dances that comprise the tanda. That meant about half a minute from the end of one song and the moment when the other dancers start moving again in a circle around the floor. This motion usually starts a few seconds into the song, allowing the dancers to steal a bit of talking time from the music.

Now there was no couple behind them signaling to get them to move and stop talking, so they made up for lost time. They were there for three hours. The conversation ranged from typical life background, to relationship issues (including Alberto’ poly agreements), to dance, to sex, to writing. He had forgotten that Sandy made a living as a technical writer and loved writing her memoir in a blog. He mentioned the numerous blogs he had started in the past in various areas of interest. Sandy had seen his tango blog, which he had not posted to in a couple of years. Talking to her made him want to start writing again, so they could have even more to share.

Her left hand was resting on the table. Interesting how in tango one expects immediate intimacy during the dance, and they had shared that many times, but, except for a friendly welcoming hug when he picked her up, they had hardly touched. Alberto’s right hand reached for hers and caressed the side of it, then held it lightly in his hand, expecting that it would be slowly and graciously pulled back. It didn’t. Then came the confession that he had always been attracted to her. She said she had too, and Alberto felt a surge of anger, at himself, for once more in his life not having gone after what he really wanted. During the past few months he had been thinking about not just the wisdom of asking for what you want, but 100% of what you want. That last workshop on “living at choice” had been useful. He had never done that in his life, being immediately prone to adjusting and compromising, always assuming he was the one who had the ability, and therefore the duty, to give in, or assuming that what he wanted was so impossible that he might just save himself the embarrassment of even asking. Maybe it wasn’t too late. Something else struck him as being ironic but worth pondering over: Sandy was a mom of two late teens, but was never married, always picking “freedom” over the security she also longed for. Alberto had always picked, or fallen into “stability”, with his marriages and even now in his primary relationship, over the freedom he longed for. Maybe there was room for some interesting dynamics here.

His mind began to fantasize about traveling with Sandy, staying in Italy or Argentina, and writing. That was her job and passion. He had starting contemplating the possibility of retiring from NASA to teach and write. Whatever he would be doing next he was counting on not being tied down to any location for long periods of time and to take full advantage of the internet.

One thing became very clear to him. He could not fit Sandy and his feelings into the poly “scheme” that had started to emerge with Alyson and Rachel. He really had to think deep and hard about what he really wanted… 100%.

You have the right to say “no”

You have the right to say “no”. You have the right to change your mind. No explanation needed. When it comes to your body you have a right to decide who touches it and how. But when it comes to your whole life? Sorry, there seems to be always somebody who decides to own it, and if you decide you want your life back no explanation is enough. You are a jerk and horrible human being. What’s worse is that others decide that somebody owns you and they are often more loyal to the person who decided to own you than to you, who just want your life back.

What Alberto liked about the poly community is that one is free to flirt with anybody, without regard of whether that person is a relationship or not. It’s up to that person to decide how to respond. No assumption is made about what that would mean to their relationship. It’s their business.

Alberto’s attraction to women in the “straight” world, especially in the tango community invariably hit the “loyalty wall” for the person who was assumed to own him. Allowing that attraction to be honestly dealt with and communicated was inconceivable. Cheating was not. But Alberto did not want to be a cheater.

So, instead of relationships that might evolve and shift and find their staying power, one has only the option of staying in a relationship that has become stale or leave it outright to be open to new possibilities. This is serial monogamy. The idea is very entrenched and it simply comes from the notion that there is an owner and an owned. That used to be the man owning the woman, now it’s more mutual, but the assumptions are the same: you are either owned, or you are a candidate for new ownership.

Even in the poly world, when there is a “primary” relationship, even though flirting and other relationships are possible, the primary often needs to be reassured that that role will not be infringed. In this world having a side relationship is not “cheating”. It’s in the open, accepted by all parties, but there can still be cheating when the “reassurance” is not honest, or when the “other” is given the impression that the relationship is open-ended when it’s really not. And this is the main source of drama in the poly world.

Alberto had felt that he could reassure Alyson when he had met Rachel, and had decided to finally test out the kind of poly arrangement he had advocated for himself in all the years of their relationship, without ever really trying hard to make it happen. But “the lunch” made him realize what he had been missing, and how he had been muddling through a relationship and an arrangement he had not chosen, and he had felt trapped in for so long. He did want any new relationship, whether it would happen with Sandy or others, to be open-ended, and he could not reassure Alyson that it would not be. On top of that he was hitting the “loyalty wall” again.

It was time to make a break. While more flexible, the polyamory framework could not sustain Alberto’s 100%. After a few sleepless nights he told Alyson he wanted his life back. It was not a pretty scene.

The first time

Alberto had always loved sex. Even when it was just an “intuition”, and when a priest suggested that he might consider going to a seminary, something in him told him that that was something he would not want to give up. Even so, he stuck with the Catholic prohibition of having sex outside marriage until he was 24. He did not even masturbate, which still counts as sex in the eyes of the Church. His only release was some occasional fantasy in bed when his penis was rubbing against the bed sheet, and that was enough to make him ejaculate… but he hadn’t touched himself, and he had tried to fight off the fantasy, so that was OK. He would often end up ejaculating while dancing at parties if a girl happened to rub up against him long enough, which was extremely embarrassing of course, and which compelled him to always have a jacket at hand so he could cover any wetness.

At 24 he was in grad school, studying physics, and he had come to the realization that his dreams of becoming a great physicist… a “second Einstein” was not going to happen. He had been working on Unified Field Theory ideas to bridge the gap between General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, and he was finding the whole field much harder than he had thought, and he had lost trust in his PhD advisor’s ideas and ability.

He had begun to seriously question his continuing adherence to Catholic religious dogma. Somehow he had begun to re-frame the Catholic set of believes has a kind of “moral mythology” that had no real bearing on reality, like the divinity of Christ, virginity of Mary, trinity, etc. but he still went to Mass and followed the liturgy and he sought out and found priests, and writings, that would accept his thinking as a possible brand of Catholic theology. Very seldom a single statement from a person is convincing enough to drastically change a person’s behavior, but one time a friend simply remarked: “you can call yourself Catholic all you want, but you are not”, and that got him thinking. Why was he so attached to that label? Was he really afraid to go to hell if he “stopped believing” officially? Would he become a person with no moral compass? Why “make an act of faith” in the Church so he could be a moral being when he could simply make the act of faith in being a moral human being? And then there was the matter of sex. Maybe religion was the excuse for some deeper issue?

Physics, religion, sex, it was all too much for somebody prone to take that stuff all too seriously. He thought of ending his life. He went to the school counseling center where they did not deem him to be an emergency case and gave him an appointment in a couple of weeks. Then he went to see his friend Greta, a German grad student, older woman, engaged to a guy in Canada. They were good friends, with no particular sexual interest in each other (at least on Alberto’s part). He talked about all that had been bothering him, and about the counseling appointment. After he was done, she took his hand, and, without saying a word, she led him to her bedroom, and stripped naked. They made love. For the first time he experienced the warmth, intensity, beauty, bewilderment of entering a woman’s body. How could such an absolutely beautiful, heavenly, loving human experience, ever, ever! Get mixed up with the idea of sin?

He walked out of her house the next morning feeling like he was floating on a cloud.

Love, sex and the Italian army

The dam had broken. Alberto had no trouble embracing the sexuality he had finally freed. He settled into his Physics studies, reconciled with the idea that his beliefs were in conflict with Catholicism and religion in general, and proceeded to pursue relationships that happily included a healthy dose of sex. His first long term girlfriend of this period was Kathy, a Hungarian born art history student, 4 years older and single mom. They spent much time together and Alberto enjoyed his unexpected role as surrogate dad to a 3 year old girl. Kathy provided him with his first challenge in open relationships before that was even considered an option. During one of her study trips in Italy as art history student, a professor had started an affair with her, and she was still under that spell, even at a long distance. A year into their relationship Kathy decided to return to Italy for some research, which of course included a chance to reconnect with the professor. That part was never discussed, but Alberto, in his mind, accepted that possibility and even offered to take care of her daughter while she was gone. Still Alberto expected some connection and reassurance during her stay in Italy. She only called once in two weeks and when she returned it was clear to Alberto that it was hard for her to restart where they had left off. After two weeks of missing her and fighting his feelings of jealousy she acted cold, distant and unwilling to be intimate. Years later he might have been able to give her and himself some time to sort out their feelings, but not this time. He walked off and never saw her again.

His next major relationship was with Sherry, an undergraduate media major. He loved her voice, sense of humor and intelligence, and they could talk for hours, but he did not feel strongly attracted to her. This is a pattern that will occur many times in his life, when he will choose to stay with women who make perfect friends but who don’t bring out the passion he longs so much to feel. This relationship was interrupted by another external entity: the Italian army!

Alberto was still in the country on a student visa, and needed to keep his Italian passport current. At that time Italy still had universal conscription and he had been getting a student deferment, but he had just received an MA in Physics which was roughly equivalent to the “laurea”, Italy’s “terminal” degree at the time. With the laurea you did get the title of “Dr.” but the work was not equivalent to a Ph.D. He intended to continue with a Ph.D, program in the Staes, but that might still last for a while and it was getting very hard to convince the Italian consulate that he was still a “student” and not already a researcher, as he would have been considered in Italy. He made some attempts to join some form of non-military service, but those programs were not yet well established and were hard to get into, so he finally decided to bite the bullet and return to Italy to get his compulsory service out of the way.

He had the option to do officer training, but the dates did not work well with the school year. As a regular soldier he could finish within a summer, a school year and another summer, so basically only one school year. So that was his choice. He asked to be in the air force, with some hope for a chance to fly, but he was assigned instead to “heavy artillery”, as a radio operator. He hated the idea of being in the army. It felt essentially like prison, but he ended up having one of the most exciting periods of his life.

He was stationed in Trento, a city in Northern Italy, just below the the Alpine “Dolomiti”. This was only a few hours from Milan, his city of birth, but instead of remaining attached to the idea of “going home” to Milan where he had lost touch with most of his childhood friends, he decided to make Trento his home and create a separate life outside the base. He was constrained at the base all day long, but evenings were mostly free for recreation, except for guard duty a couple of times a week. Unfortunately that freedom ended at 10pm when soldiers had to be back in the barracks.

At that time he was about 7 years older than most soldiers. and going out drinking with typical rowdy groups was not on his agenda. Trento had a university and he quickly gravitated towards that environment. The focus of the university was Sociology rather than the physical sciences, but his status as “visiting american” made him an interesting figure. Other activities he discovered he could become involved in were art classes. He had always had some interest in drawing, and pursuing a painting master class with models and a professional painter giving critiques and suggestions was a perfect break from army life. He decided to rent a small studio room outside the base. There he could paint, build “sculptures” out of paper cups and empty beer cans, and have privacy when needed.

He had been honest with Sherry when he broke the news that he would be spending a year and half in the Italian army. It was clear to him that he intended to “get to know” Italian women. He had left Italy as a “virgin” and was filled with plenty of embarrassment and regret for never pursuing any sexual relationship within his own culture.

His art classes and previous art training in his Italian high school came in handy. When off base he would sit in cafes and sketch the scenes around him. These scenes invariably included girls who couldn’t resist coming up to his table to see his work. One of these was Carmen, blond, athletic, very attractive. They started seeing each other and she was happy to become a regular model for him. Carmen displayed the kind of passion he always found immensely appealing. One particular sexual event was forever carved in his mind. They were in bed playing, naked, mock wrestling and getting very excited. At some point he stood and picked her up. Without really planning to do so, with her legs wrapped around him they found themselves in a stunning, surprising and absolutely wonderful coitus, as if their organs had been magnets following their own forces. After a few seconds of blissful surprise they spinned and danced in that position for minutes before collapsing again on the bed laughing. That room had been in a “pensione” and right above a restaurant, with a light fixture in the middle of a ceiling. When they left, the pensione owner didn’t say a word but pointed to the light and made a scolding Italian gesture, while shaking her head. They smiled and ran off to the street. Ah… being young!

Carmen was a good skier and on weekends she would go regularly to the sky slopes on the Dolomiti Alps, just a few miles north. Alberto had skied in his teen years in Italy, but was not very proficient, he was also required to stay in military uniform even when off the base. He joined her a few times but he would stick to a skating rink or the bar at the slopes. At his studio he painted a reclining nude of her. He considered it his best painting and it ended up with some relatives in Milan, who passed it on some years later without realizing he had been the author. For years he tried to find it and retrieve it without success. They had had great fun and great memories, but the irony did not escape him that, outside the moments of passion, they did not communicate well, and somehow silly arguments kept coming up. He stopped joining her on the slopes, preferring to spend any free weekend times back in cafes or with other friends.

A new interest was beginning to grow. She was Armanda, the daughter of the base commander. The word had gotten around the base that there was an “older” soldier who had come back from the States and had a degree in Physics. Armanda heard that from her father, and, by coincidence, she was also studying Physics! She decided to meet him one day in the mess hall and Alberto was thrilled. They decided to get together off the base to talk about what it was like to study physics in the US, life there etc. She was a brunette, a bit shorter and less athletic than Carmen, but certainly attractive and very interested in science, art, politics, enough to always have some conversations going. She agreed to see him again, but there was a glitch. She was the daughter of the base commander and as such she would not want be seen around town with a simple soldier. The separation between soldiers and officers was very much like a cast system that really bothered Alberto and tha he had not foreseen. He needed to be an officer to go out with Armanda, or go incognito in civilian clothing (and risk reprimand and punishment if caught). He had no choice but to risk, and his studio came in handy, because he could change there, wear sun glasses and meet with Armanda. The need to be incognito and the associated risk made meeting Armanda all the more exciting! But Carmen was not yet out of the picture. One weekend she decided not to go skiing and knocked on the door of the studio. Alberto was there with Armanda, and he was now in big trouble with both of them. Carmen vanished. Armanda hung around with him a bit longer but eventually hooked up with a medical officer who could keep his uniform on … and stopped seeing Alberto.

One way Alberto had managed to have more free time outside the army base was by taking advantage of special privileges accorded to soldiers whenever they took part in what were deemed as “cultural events”. If for instance there was a classical music concert, he could get a slip that allowed his re-entry into the base “after the end of the event”, with no specific time listed. He became a virtual repository of information on all cultural events happening in Trento, and he very frequently returned to the base past the normal 10pm curfew time. The frequency of his special requests didn’t go unnoticed, but he had acquired a secretarial office assignment at the main base command where, even as a “simple soldier” he was in charge of assigning duties to officers and he had considerable leverage. The aura of the Italian American physicist who had returned to serve in the military set him apart from all “regular” soldiers, so the commanding officers gave him a lot of leeway and the “cast system” had become become a bit less of a burden on him.

Of course he would spend hours “after the end” of any event, with friends or roaming around the city just enjoying the feeling of freedom that gave him. Before heading back to the base he would often end up in a restaurant “cantina” (basement) where there was music late at night and they served a wonderful mushroom risotto with the local “Amarone” wine. What suffered during this period was his sleep, since he still had to get up with everybody else at 6am, but somehow he managed and it all seemed worth it.

Still he felt he was “in prison” and at one minute after midnight, on the day of his release, bag in hand, he was at the base gate ready to get out. Even one extra minute in the army would be too much. And that re-acquired freedom was about to be rewarded with one more surprise adventure.

That very night, before returning to the base to pick up his duffel bag, he had gone to see a movie. On his way out of the theater he ran into Laura, a hair dresser friend in her early thirties, and her girlfriend Germana. He had met Laura at a cafe a few times, but they hadn’t really connected. After the hellos and “how are you”, he mentioned that this was his very last night at the base, and he would be leaving promptly at midnight. “Why don’t you come over to our house for some spaghetti after you get out?” Laura said. That surprised him, but it’s not unusual in Italy, after a night of activities or partying to have a midnight “spaghettata”, so, sure, getting out of the army seemed like a good reason for a celebration. He got their address.

The streets were mostly deserted and his steps echoed on the cobble stone sidewalk. He felt like his life was just starting anew, and nothing would ever “imprison” him again, and he felt good about how he had managed to create an interesting experience for himself in spite of the military service. He had developed some new art skills, had read books on philosophy, particularly Bertrand Russel for whom he found a great deal of affinity, had made friends outside the base and had manged to have unforgettable sex.

He arrived at Laura’s house, walked up the barely lit stairs to her apartment and rang the doorbell. The door opened, and standing there were Laura and Germana. Both wearing just panties and bras. He tried not let the surprise register on his face, and the women smiled and laughed like that was the way they always greet friends. They all proceeded to the kitchen to have spaghetti, “marinara” style, and wine. They talked about their lives as in any “normal” dinner party, but not for very long. Laura gave Alberto a meaningful nod and led him to her bedroom. She had a single bed. They undressed and got cozily under the covers. The bedroom door opened and Germana came in dragging a mattress. She put it on the floor near the bed, and lay there with her eyes firmly on them.

He had never made love in the presence of a third person, and he did not find it exciting, in part because he was unsure about what was expected and in part because he was not attracted to Germana. Still the situation, while unusual, was interesting to say the least, and he managed to have a fun and fulfilling session with Laura, as if they had been at the start of a new exciting relationship. Germana threw a towel on their bed when they settled down, ostensibly for them to wipe off their sweat, but probably to remind them that she was still there. Alberto, showing naivete’ probably unexpected by the duo, whispered in Laura’s ear: “am I supposed to do it with her now?” — “if you want to” was the answer. He did not, and they finally all fell asleep.

When he left the next morning he was reminded of how good he had felt the morning after that “first time” in Buffalo! This had been another kind of “first” but he wasn’t sure he had handled it well, and had some regret for having excluded Germana. He later tried to communicate with Laura and Germana again but never heard back. He wondered whether he had been part of a game they played regularly. But that had been OK; an unexpected ending to 18 months of military service full of experiences he was proud of having in large part caused for himself. He had had a great time, had rediscovered his artistic self, and, yes, he had gotten to know Italian women! A week later he was back in Buffalo to continue his studies.