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ALBERTO banged into the kitchen through the screen door from the terrace. He bent, his arms beefy belts securing my waist, his mouth rooting through my hair to whisper. I stood still at the sink and did not turn around. I could feel his smile in the pull of the hairs at the nape of my neck.

“A meal of perfection!” Alberto’s whisper was other people’s normal speaking voice.

I ran dishwater and shrugged, squirting liquid detergent from a bulky plastic bottle. If my home here were permanent, I would invest in one of those decorative refillable soap dispensers. I pictured something tall and sleek, with a steel pump and a long, hooked beak from which the soap would flow.

“You going to help clean up then?” I said.

His arms crushed all the air from me. I held my breath and waited. Once, unguarded after too much Italian wine, I’d asked him to squeeze me as tight as he could. Squeeze and hold, like he was never letting go. Now he wouldn’t stop.

“I’ll get the rest of the dishes.” He shambled back to the terrace and the kitchen emptied of sound and presence, a stillness like a Kenyan plain after a herd of wildebeest has passed. I slumped against the sink and breathed the void. Outside the open window, the sun hovered over olive groves and vineyards cut into hillside.

Alberto returned with our dirty dinner plates. Two wine glasses teetered on top. “You didn’t finish.” He handed me my glass and clinked his against it. “To us!”

Decorative refillable soap dispensers, like everything else, become one more thing you have to decide whether to jam into your backpack or leave behind.

• • •

I stepped off the train in Monterosso in February, before the tourists swarmed in, when Cinque Terre relived the isolation of its years as little more than fishing villages connected by boat and mule trail. Alberto loitered on the platform, a mass of solid bigness across a tall frame.

“Do you need to rent a room? Can I help you carry your bag?”

I’d been travelling since I was twenty and I did not need help carrying my bag. I avoided eye contact and pushed past him into the station. Brochures advertised hiking trails and hotels. A ticket agent nodded behind a counter. My backpack was taut against me, a hump like a parasitic conjoined twin. It was stuffed full with the art prints I’d bought in Florence, the linens in Rome. Impractical, imprudent purchases that I would soon purge.

“It’s off season.” Alberto lagged behind, persistent at a respectful distance. “Many lodging places are not open. You stay in my accommodation, you’ll be glad. My family rents many beautiful apartments. There are only two travellers staying in this one. You will have it almost to yourself.”

“Or it’s off season so you’re desperate for my business.”

He seemed too sincere not to be legitimate. My travel policy is to shove through the hard way only after exploring what falls into my lap, so I followed him from the station. We emerged onto a narrow street beside a rocky beach and grey-blue, wintry Mediterranean.

“How long will you stay in Cinque Terre?”

“Never know.”

“Why did you choose our beautiful locale for your holiday?”

“I don’t choose. I get restless. I get on a train.”

He squinted down at me. “You don’t seem happy about this.”

• • •

I left the dishes to drip dry and flipped through a magazine at the kitchen table. Alberto’s music wafted from the terrace. I watched him through the screen door, eyes closed, body swaying, arms engulfing his accordion the way they engulfed me.

The backpack was mouldering under the bed where Alberto had crammed it when he decided I was staying forever. I was clear: “I don’t stay anywhere forever.”

“You’ll see,” he said. “You’ll love Cinque Terre. You’ll love my family. They’ll love you.”

I did, for a while. Cinque Terre was stunning, a balm of sea and sky and quaint pastel houses piled onto each other and crumbling toward the water. His family did love me, his mother with her homemade pesto and focaccia, his father with his fresh catches of anchovies and earnest lessons in how to rip out the spines, throw them to the cat, eat the rest. His grandparents, his uncles, aunts, brothers. They welcomed me like I was worthwhile and like I was permanent.

“You’ll love me,” said Alberto.

He was laughing at my euros by the third week, and finally I quit shoving them at him. We lived at the top of one of the pastel house-piles, in an apartment that gradually emptied of its backpacker occupants as Alberto neglected to re-rent. We had three empty bedrooms, no living room, a terrace overgrown with grape vines, a kitchen where we cooked pasta and vegetables and fish picked up that day in the village. I served tourists at his family’s laundry and cleaned the apartments that still housed paid guests. On days off I hiked or slept or swam.

I had hung the art prints. We were sleeping in the Roman linens.

• • •

“The first time I saw you, you looked so lost.” Alberto clattered back into the kitchen after dark and leaned across the table, his accordion balanced on the floor against his leg. He handed me another glass of wine.

“I knew exactly what I was doing.” The first time he saw me was a favourite topic of Alberto’s.

“You did not know where you would sleep that night!”

“I often don’t know where I’ll sleep that night. Often it’s midnight by then, not ten in the morning. I did not look lost.”

“Okay. Well I thought you did. To me you looked lost enough that I said to myself: Something is lacking in this woman. Something I can give her.”

“Rental property?”

“A room to sleep in is the foundation of security. So that was the very first of the things I could give you.”

I sipped my wine, made by Alberto’s father, from family grapes grown on terraces stepping down to the sea.

“The voice in my heart said, In return she will give you wonderful things. And it came true, yes? You’re everything I want in a woman.”

I studied a photograph of a model smiling wide and open. Wide lips, cold eyes. “Everything?”


The wine slid and burned. What was this everything? And how could I be everything, when what I showed him of me was so much less than what there was?

His lips were wet and pudgy as he touched them to my fingertips. “You love me?”

It would be so relaxing to stay, swallowed into this postcard life, into this man large enough in body and heart for both of us.

• • •

What are you running from, everyone wanted to know. On my sporadic visits home they flashed grins and winked like they’d been put up to it in a bet; let’s psychoanalyze the remote one, the icy one, the one who can’t stay in one place.

As though travel in itself were suspect. As though travel did not broaden the mind, expose the traveller to diverse and vital
historical, cultural, sociological, archeological, culinary, and linguistic perspectives and to many big, old buildings.

You’re running from yourself, you’re running from your father/mother/sister. Commitment/career/marriage. Growing up. Canadian winters.

• • •

I corked the wine and slid it against the back of the counter where the decorative refillable soap dispenser would go. I brushed my teeth and took out my contacts. Alberto was still on the terrace when I went to bed. He appeared a few minutes later, a blurry looming blackness outlined against the hall bulb.

He turned on the bedside lamp and the room was jarred into brightness. He took off his clothes and clambered into bed beside me. At this range I could see him almost clearly, his upper body several sizes larger than his lower, a belly round and bulging like a toddler’s, on muscular legs.

“Talk to me,” he said. “Tell me what happens inside your head.”

Once I tried speaking to Alberto in French. We were walking in the village and passed a French family eating gelato outside a café. I imitated them in the simple verbs and basic nouns left by years of French Immersion. Nothing important—the weather, the seascape—and suddenly, the truth. I told Alberto I have always found it hard to open up. Maybe because of my father, emotionally distant, etc.? Maybe my mother, stern and exacting and shutting down any expression that didn’t emerge articulate and correct? My natural temperament, shy in childhood, morphing to a self-protective hardness? A teenage cousin, the year I was eight, who dragged me weekly to the bathroom to force my hand to his penis while our mothers in the kitchen peeled Saran Wrap from potluck pasta salads? I am suspicious of simplistic equations, x + y = me.

I said, in French, I know you say how great we are together but I don’t get that. I wish I did. I just don’t do well with intimacy.

The words a relief, a dam unstopped, releasing warm, restoring waters over me.

He grinned, not understanding a word. “That’s sexy.”

I reached across him to snap off the light. “Nothing happens.”

• • •

These were the men before Alberto. Murat, pansiyon manager in Turkey; Ethan, gangling Brit exploring Egypt; Daniel the intellectual Hungarian in a café in Budapest. Thomas the Aussie bartender in Kitzbühel, Wally the besotted Irishman in Dublin, Lou at the Indian ashram, Jon at the Indian ashram. Nic in Ecuador. Carlos in Ecuador. Mwangi, James, Kamal in Nairobi. The longest was a month. Several overlapped.

Also, years with nobody.

• • •

Sleeping beside Alberto was protection embodied. His right arm around me, his meaty shoulder my pillow, his magnitude filling the bed. Sleeping beside Alberto was being guarded by a grizzly bear.

I climbed out of bed after he fell asleep. I slunk in the dark to the kitchen, flicked on a light, and rummaged through the fuzzy shapes in a drawer. I held a postcard up to my eyes. The sea on the card sparkled, like it was made by Swarovski.

I wrote I just don’t do well with intimacy. I could feel the pen bleeding ink but it was invisible until I held the card close again. I wrote it with the card inches from my nose and the loops of ink amplified to constituent dots. I wrote it until the words filled the card, and then I wrote it on top of the words.

I nudged Alberto. He snorted, moaned, heaved from his side to his back.

“Alberto, let’s swim.”

His eyes flashed awake. He stared up at me. My face was at his face. “Okay.”

I slipped into flip-flops while he pulled on his shorts. “Can you see?” he asked.

“I’ll hold onto you.”

The air on the terrace was moist and fresh and cool. We crept down the seventy-one crooked stone steps to the village. The shops were closed tight. The tourists slept.

I slid my shirt over my head and dropped it in a pile with my pants and underwear. I could see nothing but darkness and diffuse firebombs of light. I ran into the cold water and it hit me like redemption. It hit me like baptism and renewal and rebirth. You couldn’t be the same once you were washed in the Mediterranean at Monterosso at three in the morning. I hoped I would not be the same. I felt a tug around my eyes and in my throat, a feeling like tears.

I was not aware of Alberto until he spurted up, whooping beside me. “What a way to wake up in the middle of the night!”

When he threw his arms around me I threw mine in return and I smiled with my mouth and with my eyes and I parted my lips to kiss him.

We made love in the water, salt sticky on our skin, tingly on our tongues. Alberto’s face contorted with passion. “I love you!” he shouted through my fingers cupped across his mouth. And then, out into the night air, “This is the woman I love!”

• • •

A film of dust coated my backpack. It made my fingers gritty as I packed. Alberto snored, spent and heavy across my Roman linens, as dawn seeped through the curtains. I had put my contacts back in, and after hours of blur the shirts and socks I folded into my pack were vibrant and distinct.

In the kitchen I looked at the place where the decorative refillable soap dispenser would go, and in that moment, with the sun already slanting onto the terrace and the half-empty wine bottle and plastic-encased dish detergent focused and clear, it was the soap dispenser that seemed the sharpest loss.


Heidi Reimer's short stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Literary Mama, hipmama.com, Outcrops: Northeastern Ontario Short Stories, and (M)Other Stories: Dispatches from the Limits of Maternity. She is the co-creator with Richard Willis of the solo show Strolling Player. She lives in Toronto, where she is completing a novel. 

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LF #030 © Heidi Reimer. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, November 2012.


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by heidi reimer