By Jason Smith
As I reached my hand between her thighs, she pushed me away the way you would a dog who’s not allowed on the couch.
“No today, Jay-zone,” she said, matter-of-factly, looking slightly annoyed. “La prossima settimana… Mercoledi.”
My 19-year-old pride was slightly wounded by her 29-year-old bluntness, but I did my best to hide it, playing it off as if I didn’t really want on the couch anyway.
Lorena smiled. “Jay-zone, this be like… like school… but sex… sex school,” she said, smirking, proud of herself for putting together an English adjective-noun combination.
With that, she turned around, walked right past the elevator I normally took from my apartment to the ground floor, and took the stairs, four flights down to the exit.
I’d just unwittingly—part-chance, part-fate—agreed to become this Italian lady’s sex student in a course she decided to put together just for me.
How in the hell did I get here?
Mercoledi… mercoledi… I found an Italian-English dictionary and looked it up.
“F — Jason, this is not going to cut it. Come see me.”
It was written in bright red letters, cutting across the black text and white background, leaving me with a knot in my stomach that made me want to run away. But there was nowhere to run — 19 years old, living in Florence, Italy, without the faintest fucking clue as to what I was doing with my life.
I wanted to run home, but remembered being home and wanting to run here. My legs were tired.
School wasn’t for me. I’d come to that conclusion years prior, in a rare moment of self-realization, looking around at the other kids in high school who actually gave a shit about To Kill a Mockingbird and who knew what mitosis was. I cared about none of it.
But then again, I didn’t need to.
While my friends applied to colleges, colleges were busy applying for me, thanks to my ability to play the game of football. Academics were a means to an end, with me maintaining whatever minimum grade point average the NCAA required, and the school maintaining the facade that I was there to learn.
It was a mutually beneficial relationship. Quid pro quo, if you will.
That all changed two weeks after graduation. According to the police report, the driver that hit me at the stoplight was busy playing with his stereo.
“Jason, you’re going to need an operation on your spine,” is the first thing I remember the doctor saying. “We need to fuse your disc at the T-12, L-1 level…”
I could tell he was hesitating with whatever was coming next.
“… and, I’m sorry, but you‘ll no longer be able to play football.”
And that settled that.
I spent my first year of college wandering from class to class, occasionally attending, more often than not nodding out on pain meds. You know that dream where you go to class and there’s a midterm and you haven’t been to that class all semester and you panic? That was my real life, except the combination of narcotics and muscle relaxers eased the anxiety and totally evaporated any sense of panic.
I was a mess.
One day I was sitting in my Philosophy class, and was stricken with a Greek-like level of consciousness, arriving at the conclusion that school simply wasn’t for me.
Fuck Plato. Fuck his cave. I’m done.
The insurance company of the guy who decided it would be better to stare at his stereo than watch the road had to pay for my college, since I lost a full-ride football scholarship thanks to their customer being easily distracted. For me to get cash on the settlement, I’d have to withdraw from school, so it was off to the registrar’s office for me.
Standing in line, I was artificially comforted by a burgeoning drug addiction when a bright yellow flier thumb-tacked to a gray board caught my eye.
Study Abroad — Florence, Italy
Sign Up Today!
Group Departs February 2, 1999.
Sure, why not.
That was the extent of the thought I gave this decision. Granted, there were workings in the background that I wasn’t conscious of. A boy, lost, no idea where to go or what to do, hating school, hating life, angry at the world for taking from me the one thing I was good at, with absolutely no idea of any destination, let alone a direction toward that non-existent destination.
Those are the things that subconsciously drove me.
I’d never lived on my own, never been out of the country, never traveled, never had a desire to live in a foreign country, didn’t know anybody who’d lived, traveled, or studied abroad, and knew only that Italy was shaped like a boot.
Those are the obstacles the drugs allowed me to side-step.
My addiction at this point was easy to pick up and put down. It hadn’t yet gripped my soul to the point it eventually would, and leaving them behind was surprisingly easy.
San Francisco to London, London to Pisa, Pisa to Florence. Apartment in a suburb called Scandicci. Three roommates: Keith, Brian, James. And a professor, David Firch.
And, of course, me, who was the problem I didn’t want to acknowledge.
I came to find that not knowing what I wanted to do with my life was a sensation that traveled well, attaching itself to my psyche with all its baggage and toiletries.
The essay was on the ancient Roman poet/pornographer Ovid. I scribbled some bullshit onto a piece of paper and turned it in, under the assumption that I’d get, at worst, a courtesy “D-” for effort.
“F — Jason, this is not going to cut it. Come see me.”
Sitting on bus #26, I stared at the paper while some new kid named Eminem pushed the limits of my headphone speakers, screaming I just don’t give a fuck while I nodded my head in agreement.
There was a small bar behind our apartment, far away from the city center, and I decided to grab a seat and clear my head. It was called Bar Ponte a Greve, but the locals called it the Casa del Popolo. Blue collar bar — foosball table, three video games, alcohol and espresso. Birra Moretti to my right, paper from my professor demanding I see him to my left, I stared off into the distance when I noticed a tall blonde with a group of friends.
She was older and that intimidated me. We made eye contact a few times, but I thought nothing of it. Slowly the group inched closer to my table when the blonde eventually looked down to speak to me. She rattled off some rapid-fire Italian, and I just cocked my head sideways and looked at her until she realized I didn’t understand a single word she just said.
“AHH HELLOOO! I EEZ LORENA… AND YOUUUU?
Apparently she thought yelling in broken English would make her easier to understand.
“Hi, I’m Jason.”
I held out my hand and she leaned down to kiss me on the cheek.
“AHHH YOUUU COMEEEE WITHHHH USSSS FORRRR DANCINGGGG?” she asked, dragging out the ending of every word, each syllable.
“Umm… I can’t, I have to… I have this professor who… you see, I’m all fucked up… I’m depressed… I don’t think… shit, why not.”
Sometimes saying “yes” when every fiber of our being wants to say “no” can be a life-changing experience. This was one of those times.
I got into the car with Lorena, her friend Francesca, and Francesca’s boyfriend Davide. I sat in the back seat with Lorena while Davide and Francesca were either arguing or sweet-talking, the context impossible to decipher while Davide swerved between parked cars, beer in his left hand, cigarette in his right. Arriving in Piazza San Lorenzo, we eventually found parking and walked to a bar that was playing Britney Spears loud enough to hear from outside. Inside we did our best to communicate, my inability to speak their language in their country an obvious barrier.
The depression I attempted to leave back home took a temporary hiatus, the excitement of meeting these three overriding my self-loathing. We spoke in four-word sentences, a combination of volume and charades.
The evening wrapping up, the beer obliterating our inhibitions, we drove home and said our goodbyes.
“JAY-ZONE,” said Lorena, still yelling, “DOMANI YOU HERE?”
“DOMANI… NO NOW, MA UMM… DAVIDE, COME SE DICE DOMANI…”
Davide yelled out from the car “TOMORROW.”
“TOMORROWWW YOUUU COMEEE HEREEEE?”
“Um, yes, tomorrow I come.”
She smiled, her face lighting up. “OK, CIAO JAY-ZONE!” she said, excitedly, kissing me on each cheek.
“Hey Jason, have a seat,” said professor Firch. He was sitting in his office surrounded by books I’d never heard of.
“Hey, how’s it going. You wanted to see me?” I asked, hoping he’d just blow me off and say “never mind.”
“Yes,” he blurted out, dashing my little fantasy. “Your recent essay on Ovid… that was really bad.”
I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to respond or not, so I sat there and stared in his direction, keeping my mouth shut.
“You’re a smart kid,” he told me. That was the first time in my life I’d heard those words. “Really smart, actually. You ask a lot of questions in class. You have a natural curiosity about the world, how it works, why things are the way they are. You can’t teach that. Most of these students, they do well in school because they’re good at busy work. They turn in assignments when they’re due, tell the teacher what he or she wants to hear, and move on. And that’s okay. Good for them. But those students don’t interest me. You interest me.”
Still unsure if I was supposed to respond, I just sat there while his pause hung in the air.
“It’s my job to take that natural curiosity you have and turn it into something academic. So here’s what we’re going to do… I’m going to drop the F you got from that piece of shit essay you turned in on Ovid,” he said, deadpan, “and you’re going to meet me every Wednesday downstairs. There’s a bar called Cafe Cabiria, and in the back there’s a table. Every Wednesday I’m going to walk to that table at exactly 4:30, and you’re going to be sitting there with a notebook and a vodka tonic, made with Absolut Vodka. Only Absolut. If you get me some cheap shit, the deal is off. And we’re going to start from scratch with you.”
He paused, leaned his head forward to make sure whatever came next was said with the proper emphasis:
And just like that he was finished. “See you Wednesday,” he finished, sitting back down, continuing with whatever he was doing before I got there. Professor-type shit, way over my head.
I ran home, showered, and walked to the bar to meet Lorena. She was sitting there waiting, minus Francesca and Davide. The night went well, a game of inter-cultural charades. When I got up to walk home at the end of the night, Lorena followed me. The closer we got to my apartment, the more anxiety I felt.
Oh no… is she coming upstairs? But… I’m not… oh god, no… I have no idea what I’m doing.
My sexual experience was lacking. I had no clue sexually. I’d been with one girl, and that experience was pretty pathetic. I was high, it was quick, and I probably owe her an apology, in hindsight.
It was really bad.
Lorena followed me upstairs and when I went to put my key in the lock, she put her hand onto my cheek, pulled my head into hers, and kissed me. Deeply. Passionately. Italiana-esque.
I’d never been kissed like that and it made my legs feel weak. It was far different than the girls my age, who tended to kiss in segments — mouth, mouth, tongue, wiggle, rinse, repeat. This was not only not that, but the total, complete antithesis of that. I felt that shit.
My hands fluttered, reaching, grabbing, feeling, in the most un-erotic, un-sensual, impatient and overly-presumptuous ways possible. By the time we made it to my bed, Lorena knew something was wrong.
“Jay-zone… are you virgin?”
Never a question you want to hear.
Lorena was 29, which doesn’t seem that old now to me now at 35, but when you’re 19… and she’s 29… that’s like talking to a Vietnam vet about the Tet holiday. She’d seen things — done things, experienced things, fantasized things—that I couldn’t even begin to fathom.
Far from a linguist, I was able to deduce that she was asking me how many girls I’d been with.
“Uno,” I said, head down, sheepish.
Glancing up, I could see Lorena squint as if she was contemplating something. She thought for a minute, and as she did, her lips formed what looked like the beginnings of a smile, but also may have been the remnants of a judgmental conclusion that I really couldn’t have blamed her for.
Sighing deeply, Lorena began the process of trying to communicate with me. Between my Italian and her English, we were working with a vocabulary of about 20 words.
“Okay,” she began, “Jay-Zone — Friends…” she said holding her left hand all the way out, “girlfriend…” she continued, holding out her right hand all the way out, demonstrating both ends of the spectrum, “we… here,” chopping a line directly between the two.
“Friends with Benefits” in Italian.
“I no girlfriend,” she emphasized, awaiting my acknowledgment before proceeding. “No girlfriend,” she said, once again, but with more emphasis. She paused, waiting for me to nod before finishing. “But I help you.” In case I didn’t capture what she was trying to say, she continued, “I teach you. I be sex professor,” she said, half-joking—but only half.
I was slightly embarrassed, but lacked the Italian vocabulary to properly communicate it, so I did what any 19-year-old who was scared to death of the things this lady could do to me.
“Okay,” I nodded, eyes as wide as they’d go. “Si, okay.”
She smiled. “Like school… but sex… sex school.”
Inevitably, Wednesday arrived. After a humanities class, I went downstairs to Cafe Cabiria and ordered a vodka tonic, with Absolut. Sitting down at the back table I took my notebook out, feeling completely ill-prepared and anxious.
Professor Firch arrived, sitting down carrying only a highlighter and a textbook.
“Jason,” he said, grabbing his drink, “I want you to read this first page and highlight as if you were taking notes.”
The assignment was confusing as a whole, but simple in its task. I began reading and highlighting. And highlighting. And highlighting. Half-way through the first page, he stopped me.
“Okay, see, here’s your first problem. You don’t know how to take notes.”
I was embarrassed at failing such a simple task, something he took notice of.
“It’s not your fault. You should have been taught this, but probably were not. Teachers assign this shit, and don’t teach it. It’s not your fault,” he said, clearly frustrated with a broken system.
This made me feel better.
For the next hour, Professor Firch taught me, a college student, how to take notes. How to highlight. What to highlight. He called highlighting a “Goldilocks” task, how you can’t highlight too much, or too little, but have to get it just right in order for it to be effective.
He eventually moved on to note-taking during a lecture. What to write, how to use short-hand, what to emphasize, what to drop, what to listen for— things that, as I wrote, I was surprised I’d never been taught before.
It was so simple, yet so important.
As our evening wrapped up, I kept glancing at my watch. After Professor Firch I’d be moving on to Professoressa Lorena, and that made me nervous.
“Okay, Jason, great work,” he said, standing up. “I’ll see you in class.”
I stayed at the table, afraid to leave. Seven o’clock was fast approaching, and I was scared to death.
Riding the bus home that day, I thought maybe Lorena would forget about our meeting. Maybe she was tipsy. Joking, perhaps. I doubt she’ll really come. Sex school? Who the fuck goes to sex school? Sex school? Sex school, are you serious? Jason, you can’t even communicate with her. How is this going to work?
I ran home from the bus stop so I’d have time to take a shower. Stepping out of the bathroom, I tried to decide what to wear. What do you wear to sex school? I decided on clean underwear, jeans, and a T-shirt.
Just as I let my fantasy of Lorena forgetting about me begin to take flight, I heard it.
Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock.
Opening the door, I half-expected to see her in a trench coat covering lingerie. Instead, she was dressed as if we were going out. Cute top, long skirt, sandals. She chopped her hair short since I saw her last, which enhanced her attractiveness. She had the requisite cute short-hair face.
I leaned in to kiss her, and she put her hand on my chest and pushed me back, neutralizing my eagerness.
Relax? She learned a new word. She actually studied English vocabulary to use with me during class, and “relax” was one of them.
That should tell you all you need to know.
We walked through my empty apartment to my bedroom. My roommates, like always, were gone. They spent most of their time in the city center, a half hour away, with other American students. My refusal to find a mini-America in Florence got me into a situation with an older Italian female and a sex class.
We sat on my bed, side-by-side. Her face a few inches from mine, she looked into my eyes, making me feel uncomfortable. I looked down.
Placing her finger under my chin, she pulled my head up.
“Jay-zone… look,” she said, pointing to her eyes.
“Look me,” she said. “Look me.”
I looked at her, and studied her face. She was beautiful. By forcing me to look into her eyes, I began seeing her not as a sexual object, but as a woman, sexy as hell, seductive smile, inviting, but an equal.
It’s not that I ever viewed women as “less than.” I had just learned that sexuality and sex was something that was objectified prior to consumption. Which was more than likely why I was so bad at it.
Placing her hand on my cheek, I leaned in, assuming she was going to kiss me. I was wrong. She pushed me back, but held her hand on my cheek, sensual but patient.
She took my hand and placed it on her hip. Immediately, I slid my hand down, forcing her to promptly pull it back up.
“Jay-zone… touch. Only touch.”
It was so simple, yet so important.
Eagerness gave way to appreciation, as this simple act of touching was hot as hell.
“Strong,” she said, grabbing the side of my neck, pulling our faces together, foreheads touching, lips as close as they could come without kissing.
“No strong,” she said, easing her grip on my neck, placing her hand against my cheek, lightly brushing her fingers against my lips.
Lorena’s expression mirrored the expression of Professor Firch, exacerbated by the fact that nobody had taught me this before.
That was our night. We touched. No kissing, no undressing, no fondling. Simple touching, and I had never been so turned on in my life. I wanted to do things to Lorena that I didn’t yet know how to do, and she saw it. She smiled.
Walking her to my door, I was somewhat disappointed, but in a very understanding way. I knew there was a big picture at play here, a picture only Lorena could see that I was simply part of.
She gave me a hug, and once again walked past the elevator to the stairs, leaving me some free time to handle the situation the only way I knew how.
The following six months changed my life. No joke.
Professor Firch, starting from scratch as promised, nurtured the innate curiosity I possessed.
“Jason,” he told me, “I want you to go out and record ten different pieces of Italian graffiti. Write them down, translate them, and bring it back.”
This forced me to explore the city, often having to communicate with people who inquired about what I was doing. I’d write something in my notebook, and move on to the next part of the city to explore. I learned that Italian graffiti was often political. I’d bring my findings back to Professor Firch, and he’d instruct me to investigate whatever political ideology that piece of graffiti represented.
This went on for six months, one assignment bleeding into another as I explored Florence, its people, its culture.
Professor Firch taught me how to write academically. It sounds simple, but it was not. He taught me how to space for emphasis, how to use run-on sentences and break rules, so long as they were for reason. For purpose. If there’s not a reason for it, delete it.
“Jason,” he’d often tell me, “this is too wordy. Punch me, don’t caress me.”
Professor Firch was by my side as I evolved as a writer. Suggestions slowly replaced demands, acceptance slowly replaced suggestions, excitement slowly replaced acceptance.
“Jason, this!” he’d exclaim. “This is really good!” Looking at me, he smiled as if to say, “I told you so.”
“You can write, man. You can write.”
My grades soared upward, improving each Wednesday.
By the time I left Italy, my GPA was a 4.0. Never in my life had I achieved a 4.0. I learned that I wanted to study history, that I loved Italian art and Italian people. Italian culture. His assignment immersed me in everything the city had to offer, and I bathed in it. I was in love with a country, with a culture, with a city.
My life was different than it was when I arrived, and Professor Firch was the catalyst.
“Aye man,” I told him, at our last meeting, “I owe you so much. Thank you.”
He looked at me and laughed. “Here you go,” he said, handing me a crumpled up piece of paper. It was my original essay on Ovid. I read it and smiled.
“You were right. Total shit.”
“I told you.”
“Sincerely, man. Thank you.”
“I was just doing my job,” he declared. “Just doing my job…” he said, his voice drifting off, perhaps in anticipation of his return home a few days later.
“What’s your plan?” he asked.
“I think I’m going to hang around for a few more months.”
He smiled, a Mission Accomplished smile.
“Good for you,” he said. “Good for you.”
“Jay-zone,” she said, softly. “Like dees.” Slowly, she unbuttoned her top. One hand, maintaining eye contact, breathing heavily but controlled. Tilting her head forward, the universal expression of ‘are you getting this?’, she finished, exposing a sliver of skin and a black, lace bra.
Abruptly, she re-buttoned her shirt and hit the reset button. Now it was my turn.
Lorena was strict. If I didn’t do it just right, we had to start over. This stage of our relationship(?) followed the kissing stage, which followed the touching stage. She had this shit broken down into a syllabus, sexual increments and seductive stages.
That first week was the touching stage. Week two began where week one left off, me not allowed to even think about kissing her until I’d demonstrated that I knew how to touch her. After meeting Lorena’s extremely high standard and expectation of touch, I was allowed to kiss her.
We spent two weeks on how to kiss.
I’m not sure what kind of kisser I was prior to meeting Lorena, but it didn’t work. She taught me how to kiss her from scratch. Kiss her lips. Kiss her neck. Kiss her skin.
Once I’d met her standard of kissing, we moved on to undressing.
That took three weeks.
She taught me how to unbutton, how to lift, pull, to leave on until the right moment, how to touch, kiss, taste, through the clothing.
On it went.
After undressing came Part One of the fun stuff. I’d arrive to my “regular” school each Thursday with a sore jaw and tired tongue.
We spent an entire month on just that.
After that finally came the ‘sex lesson,’ which lasted the duration of our remaining time together. It was slow. I was slow. But it was necessary.
In all, my time with Lorena lasted six months. One day, Lorena showed up while my roommates were home. She wanted to talk to me.
“Jay-zone,” she explained, “I meet boy. We must finish.”
I was taken back by her honesty. I was bummed, but it made sense.
“Okay… thank you?” I said, not really sure how to wrap this thing up.
“One time,” she said, holding up one finger. “Final.”
I don’t think she understood or intended the play on words, but I was going to get a final exam.
It went well. Lorena was brutally transparent at times, and loud. Very loud. And if she wasn’t enjoying herself, she didn’t fake it. She communicated, something she taught me was vital. Do this, don’t do that. Touch me here, not here. I like that. That feels good. Faster, slower, softer, harder. She communicated it all, teaching me there’s nothing to be embarrassed about when it comes to pleasure.
Honesty. Communication. Open-mindedness.
If it feels good, try it. If you’re curious, admit it. If you like it, say it. If you want it, do it. No shame. Try anything twice. And always, always, always — communicate.
As we wrapped up the final exam I walked her to the door, my roommates just staring, confused as to who the hell this Italian girl in our house was. I said goodbye to Lorena, she said goodbye to me, we kissed on the cheek, casually, and she once again bypassed the elevator and took the stairs.
Lorena was… let’s say she was animated. She couldn’t help it, meaning my roommates heard everything that came out of her mouth.
“Dude,” asked Keith, “what in the fuck have you been doing in our apartment while we’re gone?”
I smiled at the question, not out of conquest, but out of reflection.
“Growing up, man,” I told him. “Growing up.”