ANATOMY OF A SUMMER FLING
The sweetness of two paths crossing, if only for a little while
He arrived in Italy with just a suitcase and a backpack, youth-driven dreams, and a sense of curiosity that no single continent could contain.
He already loved it. From the moment he managed to find the right bus out of Rome using just his phrasebook Italian, he had been feeling all sorts of empowered. He remembered his first day, sleeping in late due to jetlag and finally walking out of the rustic hostel to the supermarket across the street. All cultural barriers were crossed the moment the shopkeeper sung along to The Police on the loudspeakers and he performed yet another successful transaction in the world’s most romantic of languages.
He continued loving it. This country had filled him with a surge of confidence and energy he had never experienced before. He had never felt more himself as he did while meandering through cobblestone alleyways, alongside the rust colored walls that were both ancient and eternal.
She arrived with a suitcase’s worth of camera equipment and an underused knowledge of European art history that was about to come in handy. She brought with her a history of lopsided relationships, a collection of lightweight dresses, and an unknown need to find out who she really was away from the usual people who defined her.
When they first met, briefly, in front of the bronze cathedral, she could not find the words to explain what she was doing in Italy. She leaned into her knowledge, mentioned something about the art and Caravaggio and about the golden qualities of the sunsets this time of year and her photography, coming nowhere close to describing the real reasons that brought her.
She always had trouble doing this. She could never quite find the words to articulate all the beliefs and desires and elements of personality that made up the core of who she was. Even to herself, she was quite the mystery.
She was an enigmatic personality who needed to find herself. Isn’t what the early twenties are for anyways? While these Mediterranean cities served as a scenic backdrop, the more urgent exploring she would be doing would be an itinerary of self-discovery. Some people don’t know who they really are until they lose all senses of familiarity, until new environments push them to make different decisions.
This was her, at the beginning of the summer.
You can count on one hand the amount of times it rained that summer, and on the first of these rainy days was their next interaction.
It started with a flash of recognition in Piazza Gramsci, an “oh, we’re neighbors!” and an invitation upstairs. It turned into a full day of him teaching her how to make coffee the right way and her teaching him an old card game.
By the following week, she had forgotten everything he said about coffee grounds and steam, and he could no longer remember the rules of the card game. He did remember the fact that the longest relationship she ever held lasted three months, that she was the sort of student who continually got straight A’s, that she hoped to visit France next, where she was a lot more proficient at the language. She remembered that he had written a screenplay that she volunteered to read sometime.
Something about the next few weeks seemed entirely effortless. An effortlessness brought them closer, the same effortlessness that seemed to guide the Mediterranean lifestyle they were surrounded by. It was a lifestyle of ease and mystery. He couldn’t explain the burgeoning protectiveness he started feeling towards her, especially when they would go out at night and bystanders would turn into loud and obnoxious romantics. She could no more easily explain why she seemed to understand herself more with this new person around.
A wise and impartial observer might note that this is simply what happens when an enigma meets a deep curiosity.
He wanted to explore everything. Bistros and cathedrals and sculptures, first kisses and childhood trips and her gay best friend who was a terrible listener. For the first time, she felt like some of those layers of mystery that she was buried beneath were beginning to unravel. There really was such a thing as her true personality, and for a while, both seemed intent on discovering it alongside each other.
Months later, he would share photos from that summer with friends back home. Photos that occasionally included her. They would have to do a double take when seeing her. His friends didn’t often see him with girls, and they were impressed at what he was able to end up with.
“Wow, you didn’t tell me she was… attractive?”
It was only then when her physical attractiveness caught his eye, and it caught him a little off guard, too. He found himself impressed at his own accomplishment, and stunned by the fact that he hadn’t noticed this sooner.
In fact, it was nothing physical that caught his attention at first. What he noticed first was his own ease, and then how they seemed to never run out of things to talk about. He found it fascinating that she held both a very scientific brain alongside a deep interest in art and other intangibles. The things that held her interests really captivated her, and in contrast to his jack-of-all-trades approach to life, he found her to be resevoir of knowledge when it came to a few, very specific things. Human genetics. Sports cars. Literature. He wondered if he could find himself on this list.
Months later, he would consider it an error how quickly they dove into things. He would later consider it a lapse in judgement that first evening when he took his shirt off around her, followed moments later by his cut off jeans. He would eventually come to think that it was too much, too soon. The night in their weekend rental would have been considered mild, even by fairly conservative standards. Not to mention, it had been an unrelentingly hot day, and the heat refused to quit even though the sun had set long ago. It must have been in the mid-to-upper thirties, he thought, taking pride in how quickly he adapted to the Celsius system. Working in a lab all day at her usual job, she was less than impressed.
This was the night when there was no more mistaking what was going on. The textures and folds of skin became new cities and centers to explore.
While he never wrestled with his own body image the way he heard some of his friends had, he had never felt truly confident with his body either. At least not this confident. And it wasn’t a big deal, but the way he could simply lie there without repressing an urge to go anywhere else felt freeing. This confidence felt unnaturally good.
This went on.
If the confidence felt good, the naps together felt good too. A soft lull and the weight of heavy eyelids. The crisp coolness of light sheets on bare skin. The Mediterranean state of mind had fully taken over, and rising temperatures were as good of a reason as any to spend four hours in the afternoon in bed, drifting in and out of sleep. They would sometimes get up, go to the nearest street corner to purchase ice cream, before drifting back off into sleep. These naps, they were a good thing.
This went on.
One day, he awoke to find her crying. Curious, he naturally asked for why. He was ready for a clear explanation, a road map to understand what was going on. He hoped she could explain her tears as easily as she could explain chromosomal mapping.
No such explanation existed.
While the truth remains mostly an enigma, he did gather some bits and pieces of information. While away from home, it seemed as though home had forgotten her. There was no interest in all the change she had experienced, the new states of ease she found herself in. Only an interest in reporting to her what she was missing out on.
Clues to her mystery? Maybe. But in the end, more of a distraction from the real story at hand.
That was the moment he first discovered how very temporary this might be. As much as this summer had taken off like a whirlwind, perhaps it could die out like a candle. Swiftly. Quietly. Maybe all this confidence and magic and collision of personality might not be able to continue back home. Maybe it had no chance of survival once real life began. Perhaps this was all just guided by the fact that they were two explorers on very different quests that had a couple months of overlap.
After all, neither of them had the experience of going in a relationship like this for a very long time. Granted, neither of them had a particularly large sample size, but if the past was any indicator, and if personality was any clue, this thing might not have a very long lifespan.
It occurred to him that afternoon. The first afternoon he saw tears.
He was never one to give up that easily, though, and he wondered if it might be worth doubling down on whatever was going on to see if it could be made into the sort of thing that could last. After all, if this thing feels temporary the way it is, then there really is little to lose in the long run.
They enjoyed an evening walk and he wondered if she had ever experienced anyone asking her out on a date. Not just hanging out and assuming a date, but an old fashioned, will-you-go-on-a-date-with-me, let’s-get-dinner sort of a thing. He thought back to every story she every told him and quickly concluded, no. It was highly unlikely anybody had ever asked her.
If this isn’t meant to last forever, perhaps I could at least provide that, he thought. The proper experience. A chance to receive that proper treatment.
It was supposed to happen the weekend just before she went off to France, he figured. It could also double as a proper send off. He bought a new shirt and the next week started off alright, but by Wednesday things changed.
It started off with a vague “I need space” request. He respected the request but now he wanted answers. His curiosity itched.
“Pissed as hell,” was her next explanation, which wasn’t much of an explanation at all. What had he done? Was it even something he had done, or was it something else altogether? Was it maybe just a more general state of being pissed as hell? Who knew.
He had suspicions of external factors that perhaps served to tear them apart. He had long held his reservations about a jealous third wheel, perhaps planting rumors that were untrue. He debated confrontation, simply asking. Anything really. He most wanted to know why. What happened.
In the end, she didn’t even know why. The sudden resistance remained a mystery she never solved.
They both went off to Belgium, the trip of parting ways that had long been planned before the explosion. Unlike their other weekend explorations, this was not one that happened together. They were with each other as they did activities, but they did none of them together. She looked at architecture, sculptures, and paintings, while he chose to daydream in front of them. He sampled the fries, the waffles, and most importantly the sour cherry ales and lambics, all while she chose to live inside her own head.
It was grey in Belgium, and it brought them the first rainy day they had seen in months.
She allowed herself to be enigmatic and he allowed himself to be curious. She was a creative individual, and he wondered if their moment of falling apart began with a spark of wayward creativity. What if that inventive part of her brain eventually had to begin inventing reasons for her to shut down? Was it possible that misplaced creativity could lend itself to self-destructive behaviors?
They parted ways in Brussels. They parted amicably. There were no big disputes to resolve, no qualms or disagreements. Just a quick hug and a “see you later,” a promise neither intended to keep. As he disappeared with his suitcases around an alleyway, he knew it would be the last they saw of each other.
Just like that it had ended as quickly as it had started. On his end of things, it took just as little effort for them to come apart as it had taken them to come together. Maybe there a certain relationships that are designed to happen like this. Like a gust of wind blowing a leaf against a window, effortlessly held together until the wind changes course.
He looked down the cobblestone where she had disappeared. He remained amazed that this had even happened, a summer that resembled something you’d read about in other people’s lives. Not his own. He remembered the naps and he felt strongly that it was good while it lasted.
It was right to let go, too. In the end, his suspicions had been correct, and it really was the sort of thing that wasn’t meant to last forever, or even for a very long time. Their differences would have eventually surfaced, and he already knew what those differences could be. He was a constant optimist and eternal believer, and she was a strict naturalist waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is no reason why two people can’t enjoy a weekend trip together, but planning a life, or years of a life takes a lot more of a shared vision.
So in the end, what was left? Photographs and new knowledge about renaissance painters and Italian history? He was able to see new places he had never seen before. Venice and Paris and Brussels and how to hold somebody’s shoulders as they cried and feeling good about being shirtless. And there were a few mysteries solved on her end, of things that brought her life some definition, things that set her apart from her friends and made her a separate person. There are a few of us who don’t really learn this until later in life.
On paper, it was another failed relationship for both parties. Eventually, they would find more success, more happiness apart. Those are more exciting stories, better stories than this one. But perhaps this story was integral for getting there.
He was able to bring confidence into new relationships and endeavors that he had never experienced in years prior. He had just begun his journey in exploring the world. She had just begun the journey of discovering herself. In the end, these journeys would make them better people, and better partners, not for each other, but for other people.
So can you really call it a failure?
They both think that it was exactly what it needed to be that summer, and nothing more.