She was so fucking infuriated with Stephen, even now, even after all the years that have passed since he left her. Which still strikes her as odd, because she hadn’t really known him. Not really. Not in the end. So many years she has spent pining and missing a man who contributed so much to her life, yet the only residual feeling she can truly identify is her anger. Her absolute rage because he shattered the illusion of her happiness, of her perceived joy, of the life she had carefully planned and executed for them. Rebecca, in her own insidious way had molded a life of expectations Stephen could never meet, and all the while she waited patiently for him to validate her belief that he would one day disappoint her. And in the end he did. She took a disgraceful comfort in knowing she had been right about him all along, despite the fact that he died.
Stephen had died by suicide, she hated ‘committed suicide’, with it’s archaic religious resonance. Who knows the weight any soul can bear and who gets to judge? There are things in this world to tragic to accept: a toe tag on a toddler where a small sock should be, an old man rotting in a cold bed, the absolute agony of knowing the man you loved, took a rope, tied it around his neck, secured it to the ceiling, and jumped. She will never know the last thoughts that went through his mind. Was it his mother, his first kiss? Was it the way her hair smelled, or the beach he loved? Did he have all these thoughts and still want to jump, or, did the torture of leaving all this behind force him to claw at the rope, scratching at his neck, writhing in terror as he realised it was already to late. Or did he simply hang limply and welcome in the death that was the only solution he had left. A solution which only asks more questions than it answers.
His death was a cruel final betrayal and it had broken her. It made her heart close hard and fast around the idea that she would ever be happy again. The guilt wore her down daily; fueled her survival, but it lent her a purpose. Yet, lurking just beneath her anger was the horrifying fact that maybe she deserved this pain, that her part in his death was perhaps, not a small one. His final act, his last autonomous achievement, to bring her as much pain as possible so she could always know, would always remember, just how much she had failed him in their relationship, in their friendship and his life. He won the final battle, making sure that this time, at least, he would have the last word. She could argue and rage with a dead man all she liked – but he would always have the last word!
Rebecca was only too aware that the person she was in her past was a creation, an aid for making sense of who she’s become in the present. She was a person who believed her happiness was perfect, was real, was a concrete reality she could touch and taste. She looks back now with an ache because she missed that happiness, she missed it – all, while it was happening. How, even contained in their arguments, their simmering silences, and in every other simple thing - the love was always there. She resents him for that, for not seeing the truth of their life together, abhors herself more for holding on to that question she was always always to afraid to ask him.
So when Luca entered her life, Rebecca really wasn’t paying attention. She had stopped noticing men. Paid less attention when they noticed her. It was just easier this way. But the first time she really observed him was at a dinner party. She sensed someone scrutinizing her from the end of the table, drinking her in. When she looked up and met his eyes she was struck at the intensity of a feeling she could barely remember. She felt hot and uncomfortable, but defiant and resilient. She attempted to dismiss the feelings immediately, but she could not refute that part of her, lying dormant that had been woken up by his glance, his smile, and the shape his lips made when they formed her name.
She met him again a few weeks later and quietly noted that despite herself, she liked him. He was curious, interesting and funny. Younger than she was, Luca was light; free and easy. Complicated in the uncomplicated way only the young can be, before life turns hairs grey and bodies soft with worry. She envied that piece of him, wanting desperately to preserve his vulnerability, to protect him from what bitter experience would teach him. To guard him from knowing that life will never be the expectation; limes will never grown from lemon trees and not all reasons can be accepted as truths we hold and share. She would never be ready to hear the cynicism in his voice as life turned him hard, twisted him into the type of man she could have no reason to love and she missed having a reason.
Her longing to be around Luca greatly disturbed her, forced her to live with the silent but noxious fear that bearing witness to her brokenness; her neediness, he would one day deny her his affection. Yet, as she slowly, cautiously and gently unraveled the truth of her fragility, he never did. It simply drew him as close as she was able to let him. He softly offered her permission to feel accepted in her fragments, daring her to consider the honesty of his view. Hesitant to acknowledge her fondness for him, she allowed a growing tentative friendship to form. Her budding affection unsettled her, an attachment which was terrifying in its familiarity. Their deep conversations challenged her view of the world around her, their laughter and frivolity making her dare to hope. But Luca wasn’t Stephen. And Rebecca wasn’t sure she was ready to excuse him for that yet, or to forgive Stephen for leaving her either.
Luca invited her to spend Christmas with him and his family in Rome. She was flattered, but unsure. Theirs was a friendship so unsullied she wasn’t ready, or prepared for the possibility of it becoming more, yet he had awoken something in her that needed her attention. An awareness of a deep need to be seen, for passion, for her body to be explored, caressed and worshipped by new hands. For all the pleasures she had denied herself since Stephen died. In the end, his insistence on wanting to spend the holidays with her, wore her down. Although struggling to accept the gift of his proposal, she agreed to go.
He met her at the airport closest to the city, and when she saw him she was surprised at how happy it made her. This simple gesture of picking her up. How tender he was with his embrace, how carefully he took her bags and carried them to the car, how happy he was to see her. This made her suspicious, she searched his face for a clandestine motive but was met with only his dark smiling eyes. When they arrived at his parents house she found she was nervous. Not because she was afraid to meet them, but she was suddenly struck at the weight of it all. Meeting his parents, being in Rome – the possibility of a fresh memory that didn’t include Stephen. She felt the proverbial gnawing at her insides; subtly persuading her to forget she’d ever had a Stephen. She was tempted to surrender the very idea of him, to return all the moments they’d shared to a time that existed before they did. She didn’t know how to move to a happiness where Stephen, her beautiful Stephen wouldn’t feature. And he was beautiful, not just physically, which he was, but in a way that made everyone in his sphere feel worthy, at peace with the world and seen. He was loving; gentle, intelligent, and careful with other’s feelings. This man she had built her joy around, who she had once loved so ferociously would no longer be a part of her story. Had written himself out. That would always hurt - that he had not loved her enough to stay. It was easier to stay angry with him for that simple truth. He had swore his life to her, now she existed with nothing but tainted memories bouncing around a house hollowed out with pain. He left her with nothing but wanting. Her head so full she didn’t notice Luca’s mother standing in front of her. Rebecca extended her hand, smiled and was welcomed into her home.
Luca’s childhood home was not how she had imagined it would be, but she observed with delight his absolute pleasure at seeing her there, at watching her drinking coffee and chatting in broken English with his mother. Later that week she asked him to show her ‘his Rome’, so he took her to the places in his neighbourhood he’d played as a child, where he’d studied, worked, laughed and loved. She liked this vignette into his past, enjoyed watching his dark eyes spill his secrets. But there was a certain sense of unease about him, as though he couldn’t quite understand where it had gone, couldn’t quite find his place anymore. As if time had lied to him, yet, finding that everything was exactly where and how he left it. It was an intimate moment in his furtive world and she was overtly aware that in showing her all these parts of his life, he was welcoming her into his story. And in doing so, perhaps starting a new one just for them.
Together they explored the beautiful city. Dark men sold cheap trinkets at every corner, plying tourists with tales of love. They weren’t, as she first thought, simply clever marketing ploys, but rather, real stories of their real love. She gave them money not necessarily for the trinkets, nor simply out of pity, but because she recognized their delicate truth, bore witness to their reality. She wanted to cry for them and the struggles their love had brought them. She wanted to cry at the beauty, and for the beauty of it all. Rome is a city for lovers, a place to be loved; to find it, to seek it, to miss it and to hope for it.
The day they stood at the top of the Piazza del Popolo he asked a passing tourist to take their picture. She turned brightly towards the camera and flinched a little as she felt his warm hand on the small of her back. He moved his hand around to her waist and pulled her in closer, she fit neatly into his embrace, as if all along it had been waiting for her. She looked up at his strong jaw, at the fine shape of his nose and sighed heavily. She wanted him to look at her and see everything she couldn’t say, yet she wouldn’t meet his eyes. Like all the other times since Stephen died, she would not allow herself to be close to him, was too afraid to ask the question that burned her lips. She started to cry then, soft and quiet. Luca turned and looked at her, curious about her tears. She simply smiled and blamed the sun for her streaming eyes. He put his arm around her and kissed her tenderly on the forehead. He never pressed her for answers, never quizzed her on matters she wasn’t ready to share. And he was beautiful. There were no other words to describe him. But with his beauty brought the pain of all she was afraid to covet.
At the end of her trip as he drove her to the airport, she stared blankly out the window, afraid her tired, watery eyes would betray her. When they arrived, he carefully took her bags out of the car and walked her to the terminal door. They made plans to catch up when he was back in the city. She watched him walk away and was suddenly so aware of just how much she was going to miss him. But at that exact same moment she wanted to run after him, punch him hard in the face, beg him to leave her alone because the price of loving him was a cost she could not bear.
His hand was reaching for the door when she called him. He turned and walked back towards her. His confident gait making her smile, regardless of the stifling panic. He asked her was everything okay, a curious smile on his face. She tried to speak but produced no sound. He opened his arms and pulled her into his chest. She could feel his breath at her ear, hear his heartbeat, smell his fresh sweat. He was delicious. He pulled his head away from the embrace and told her he loved her. His declaration ripe with potential, raw with emotion, his heart open; tender, willing. She looked up into his gorgeous imploring eyes. In order to love him she would have to let go of her anger, her twisted, justified, exhausting anger. The words hung heavy swathed around the space between them. She reached up and placed a hand on his cheek. He waited, then he sighed, put his own hand over hers, took it from his cheek and kissed it. Their window closed. But he loved her. It was something. She would always have that. He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. She noticed the soft curve of his smile, a smile that told her he would be okay, but that he would not wait for her, and her heart ached for all that had been stolen, for all that she had not fought harder to keep. They parted ways and she walked towards her departure gate. She might never stop believing that her life with Stephen would have been anything but spectacular, but the man he was, will never be the man he could have been. His life, their life, belonged in the shadows now, stuck in a past which never changes, that time only drags forward. She turned to glimpse Luca one more time, but he was already beyond her vision, had moved into that distant space where she would not follow.