"Thanks for the compliment, Tommy," she said, calmly, her elbows held a little stiffly against her sides, her two hands cupped around the gin-and-tonic on the table before her, "but no thanks."
"I like to keep tryin'," Tom said. He was short, but lean and nervous. He had been pressing Helen closely ever since their little foursome started taking cocktails together after night classes at New York University. His friend Harry and a tall blonde named Cathy sat in the booth across from them, too engrossed in themselves to notice their conversation.
Helen Hennessey tried not to notice the arm slid seductively about her waist. That was Tom, all right: always in there trying. She dropped a swizzlestick through the round hole in a dwindling ice-cube, and swirled it idly around the half-empty glass. But why me, I wonder? She made an impersonal appraisal of herself: the short, stubby body, too wide and well-padded in all the wrong places; the legs too short and round to be beautiful; the ambiguous masses of her bosom; the curly mouse-blonde hair that managed to look attractive, but appeared dry and brittle on closer inspection; the glasses that did things for a face that gave them no help of its own. I'm twenty-eight, she told herself, with a Masters inEnglish and a teaching fellowship. I don't make brilliant, witty conversation; I don't even encourage him. What could anybody ever see in me? Was I ever actually attractive, in any fashion? Or was it always just like Tom here, who thinks I'll be easy because I'm plain? Was I merely lucky?
* * * * * * * *
At first she thought it just the pressure of the crowded Roman trolley, but in a moment the sensation became obvious. Helen slapped tensely at a hand moving slowly over her hip, and whirled about in the closely packed car. "Please, stop." She could not help sounding flustered and annoyed.
The man she faced was much taller than herself, and filled his dark suit with a look of middle-class softness. He was dark, obviously Italian, and he grinned down at her with a look of impertinence and pride.
"Forgive me, Signorina," he smiled, in an Italian that sang with humor, and then repeated in excellent English, "A compliment, merely a compliment."
Two young men crushed close in the crowd laughed joyously at this, and, whispering comments Helen's Italian could not follow, snickered again. She felt her face redden with a blush she was instantly ashamed of, but she could do nothing but scowl silently, and turn indignantly away. At the very next stop she hurried from the car, accepting the few extra blocks of walking to be free of her shame. But before she had gone but a few steps, an insistent voice cut through the bustling crowd after her.
"Signorina. Signorina, wait a moment!" Helen stopped, her cheeks still pink, her breath still irregular, and faced about, determined to defend her dignity this time.
"Signorina, really, I meant no harm. You should not be so upset over a trifle."
"I am not accustomed to being handled in public," Helen exploded, unable to control herself.
The man smiled, as though talking to a child. "Must you be so American about it?"
"Perhaps if you had been less Italian, I could think differently!"
The man threw back his head and laughed warmly, his eyes closed with mirth. "Excellent," he laughed. "Excellent, I deserved that." He hesitated, and in a fresh blush of confusion, Helen turned to go.
"Signorina, wait ... " He caught up with her; his voice was softer now, kinder, more earnest. "Please, Signorina, truly, I meant no harm ... and I'm sorry now. There, in the trolley, I was aware of only one thing: that you are a woman. I am, as you say, perhaps over-Italian, and that is why I behaved as I did. But I realize I was mistaken. You are no longer 'just a woman'; you are a person, an individual ... someone in whom I now see a pride, an identity. I was a fool not to have thought of it before. Forgive me, Signorina; it was thoughtless. I apologize."
His voice sounded so earnest, so pleading, that Helen felt her indignation falter. And perhaps she was being too American. It was really less a thing than should be worth all this fuss.
"Well, no matter ..." she heard herself saying. "It's over now the matter is closed."
"Signorina," the man continued, hesitantly, "would you consider me very impertinent if I were to invite you to a cafe for a glass of wine?"
"Yes, very impertinent."
"Any more impertinent than you think me already?" His eyes sparkled.
Helen hesitated. "But a man I've never even seen ... I don't even know your name, or ..."
"Romano," the man supplied generously. "Everyone calls me just Romano. And you are Signorina.. I mean Miss, Miss... ?"
"Miss Hennessey. Helen Hennessey. But I can't ... "
Well, Miss Hennessey, will you do me the honor of joining me, a shame-faced stranger, Sign.. Mister Romano, in an innocent glass of wine?" Romano, though hatless, swept his arm into an enormous formal bow at which Helen had to giggle, and in an instant she had taken his arm, and found herself seated at a cafe table.
* * * * * * * *
Helen was first amused, and then intrigued by this young man, who appeared only a few years older than herself, but somehow more polished and experienced. His English was excellent, and his vocabulary amazing. ("I have known many Americans, since the war. It is a much better way to learn a language than taking classes.") He talked easily, yet with a directness that intimated a desire to be understood, and a willingness to comprehend her ideas and opinions. Despite her early reserve, Helen found herself fascinated by his intriguing personality. They talked of familiar things, of Rome, and the terrible tourists, and the true sights one never saw; about the war ("It was not my war at all. It was my brother's war, my uncle's war; it wasn't anything I could comprehend, or control. For a while, I hated the Americans, because they seemed the ones who had caused me miseries. Then for a while, I hated men like my uncle, who brought the calamity on me and on himself. But it was a long time ago. I don't let it worry me any longer."); about books ("We had some good writers, but almost all of them spent too much time thinking about politics. Maybe after a while someone will come along who can tell stories for their own sake again."); about almost everything. Before she noticed it, the cool breath of evening came into the air, and the street lights were on.
"Heaven, I had no idea of the time. You're truly fascinating, Romano." The "Mr." had disappeared long before. Helen smiled as she rose, preparing to leave.
"Miss Hennessey," Romano put a hand on her elbow, "we could dine together ... if ... " Romano hid his mouth with a nervous hand.
Romano gazed at her dejectedly. "We could dine together, Miss Hennessey, if you have the money to pay."
"But, haven't you any money, Romano?"
"My last went for the wine... "
"But you should have let me pay for my own.... "
"Miss Hennessey," Romano seemed impatient at her lack of understanding, "a man couldn't invite a woman to drink with him and then expect Her to pay! A total stranger? That would.. that would be TOO impertinent!"
Helen was so amused by his twisted ethics that she had no objections whatever to their dinner arrangements. Before entering the restaurant, she pressed some bills into Romano's hand-- "So that it doesn't look odd later" --and he graciously said no more about it.
It was a long, sumptuous Italian meal, with several courses, and bottles of all the appropriate wines, and made even more pleasant by the delightful company. In her two weeks of as summer travelling fellowship, on which she expected to finish research for her Master's thesis in several Roman libraries --- Helen hadn't realized it, but she was really starved for company, for conversation, for companionship. She was amazed and delighted to find so satisfying a person to be with, and happy that he seemed also satisfied to have met her. When the last glass of wine had been emptied, and they left the restaurant, Romano lingered a moment to pay the bill, then took Helen's arm.
"I'll see you home," he said simply, and Helen realized suddenly what would follow. As they mounted the stairs to her apartment, it was more than the wine that made her giddy, and she was glad of the arm gently circling her waist. As they reached her door, he kissed her, and she felt herself relax into his embrace. Romano kissed her, held her for a moment, and then said softly, "Mis Hennessey, give me your key." She fumbled in her purse, and when she entered, he followed her in. She was about to speak when he closed the door and turned toward her, but then he kissed her again, and she could not think of what she might have been about to say.
* * * * * * * *
The first rays of dawn had just peeped weakly into the room when Helen opened her eyes. It was not really the first time she had awakened to find a man asleep beside her, though it was certainly the first time the man had been totally unknown to her the previous morning. But perhaps, she though, this might make matters less complicated. She rose silently, found a robe, and set about quietly preparing a simple breakfast which she arranged on a chair beside the sleeping Romano's head. He opened his eyes just as she poured a cup of coffee.
"Good morning," she said simply. Romano blinked, yawned once, and smiled at her, bewildered.
Helen sat on the edge of the bed beside him. "I wanted to make it an enjoyable awakening," she said, then added, "It was a pleasant evening." Romano smiled. Helen turned suddenly away from him. "When you're finished, you'd better go."
When he spoke, his voice held none of the drowsiness that had been in his eyes. "So that you can feel guilty, Miss Hennessey?"
"Guilty?" She stared at him, amazed.
"Don't Americans always want to feel guilty after something like last night? With Americans, sex and guilt are almost synonymous; you don't seem to be able to have one without the other."
"You seem to speak from experience!"
"There have been others," Romano said casually; then, sitting up: "But do you have to be as ridiculous as the rest of them?"
Helen rose suddenly and stepped away from the bed. "After all, I Am an American... "
"But you are not in America now." Helen heard the rustle of the sheets and Romano rose, felt him approach behind her. Do you think Rome cares what happened last night, or who we are? Here, whomever shares your bed is your own affair." His arms came around her; she could feel his fingertips gently touching the undersides of her breasts. "Why, if we were to go to the manager of this hotel right now, this morning, and tell him I was going to share your room with you, the only comment he would make would be about the change in rents. He would wonder if an extra bed might be necessary, and if we told him no, it would not seem to him odd. If he were young, he might permit himself a wise smile."
Helen tore free of his sensuous embrace. "I suppose you know this from past experience too?"
"Upon occasion. Yes."
"And you're out of money because your last companion has left for the states, is that it?"
"No, that's not it! I am broke because I've been out of work for a month and a half. Jobs aren't easy to find, not decent jobs. And I didn't have much of a chance to learn useful skills during the war. This ... occupation, is one I fell into by chance. I didn't expect to be forced back into it again. It isn't always easy, unless the partner is congenial."
"And of course, I'm congenial. Or at least, congenial enough under the circumstances... "
"You might be; you certainly have been so far. If not, we'll see."
Helen stared him coldly. For all his commercial smoothness, there was a clumsy air of honesty about Romano she almost wanted to believe.
"I don't have much money."
"It would not be much of an increase; and I might even be able to save you money. It would be foolish for people to try to charge me tourist prices."
"I have a lot of work to do at the libraries; I suppose you'll want pocket-money with which to amuse yourself?"
"I don't expect you to pay for my amusements."
This is madness, Helen thought. I sound as if I'm actually bargaining with this man. "It's ridiculous; I'll only be here two months.. "
"After which you will go home, and all is forgotten. You can feel more guilty then, if you wish."
Helen stared coldly into Romano's eyes.
"You, of course, get nothing in the deal?"
"I live another two months," Romano replied, simply. "Perhaps better than I have ever lived before."
Helen sniffed in amused bewilderment at it all. "Where I come from, they have words for men like you.. "
"Dirty words. I'm sure. Don't people always see dirt in things they cannot understand? With me, Miss Hennessey, you will not be lonely in Rome. You were lonely here, before last night? Perhaps you have been lonely most of your life. But the next two months can be different."
Helen smiled. The whole thing was unbelievable. "What will the girls back at Radcliffe say when I tell them I was propositioned by an Italian gigolo?" She could not suppress a giggle at the concept.
Romano seemed suddenly stung. "I do not like your American words, Miss Hennessey. I offer you only what a man can, in my position. I am not a wealthy tourist, Miss Hennessey. I haven't the money to take you to dinner, dancing, as a man should. Even if I could find work, I wouldn't make in two years the rent you will pay for two months on this apartment. But I am a man of some pride, Miss Hennessey, and I will not ... "
"Helen," she broke in, suddenly. "If we're going to talk to the manager, you'd better stop, calling me Miss Hennessey all the time." Then she put her hands about his neck and kissed him.
When they did visit the manager's office, it was much later i the morning.
After that morning Helen's life in Rome seemed to relax into an oddly restful routine, centered on her work, and Romano. She left the apartment late each morning, for long hours of often fruitless searching for manuscripts and verifying dates of publication. But, once she arrived home, often bedraggled and discouraged, there was the ritual of dinner, restful despite constant innovations and surprises --- sometimes new restaurants to visit, sometimes things Romano cooked himself, or things he had waiting at the apartment when she arrived. Whenever she had free time, and whenever her searches ended in early failure, there were intriguing places to visit, new things to see and do. Helen wondered for a while what Romano managed to do, alone at the apartment, until he confessed that he had been doing research himself, into her own personal library, examining the intricacies of English literature. Once he had confessed his interest, a genuine one, there were continual new questions and curiosities they could discuss, about things Helen had never expected to try to teach to a citizen of Rome, things Romano had never expected to find so fascinating.
Helen had expected their relationship to seem artificial, but she never found it so. Romano never appeared to talk to her as though he felt he had to; he never agreed with her without giving her the impression that it was a genuine agreement. He confessed upon occasion an embarrassment at not being able to give her presents ... but he soon discovered a method to subvert this problem by suggesting occasionally that Helen make specific purchases in shops, or that she visit some obscure restaurant, or new beach or resort. When he could find a hat or a scarf that he knew she would enjoy, it gave him a satisfaction to know she found it through him, and she was glad to think he took the trouble to please her. Her feeling of oddness disappeared almost immediately, and she felt an increasing sense of assurance in Romano's presence.
"I Like you, Romano," she discovered, suddenly, one evening, as they sat entwined in one another's arms. "You fascinate me."
"I'm glad," he said, softly kissing her.
"You arouse me. And I feel like being aroused!" She unbuttoned his shirt and ran her hand nervously over his chest. "Oh, I'd like to see you naked." Romano giggled softly, and tried to take her in his arms. "No, I'm serious!" Helen said, petulant, teasing. "Take of your clothes and arouse me. That's what I'm paying for, aren't I? To be aroused? I want you to arouse me!" She began fumbling playfully with the buttons of his clothes.
"Carissima, please... " Romano protested, still being the unwilling party to a joke.
"Oh, come on, Romano! Let me see the body I'm paying for. I've never really seen you naked before. I want to see what I'm paying for!"
The man suddenly flung her hands from him and rose from the couch. "You are paying for a man ... not a public exhibitionist! I still have some pride left, Helen. I am sorry. Apparently I am not what you expected. I cannot fulfill your desires any longer!"
"Romano! Wait... " But it was too late. Before she could move, Romano had snatched up a jacket, and left her crying her indignation to a closed door and an empty apartment.
The sudden flash of pride bewildered and chastened Helen. She found herself wondering just what kind of man she had been living with. That queer code of ethics again, she rationalized, but came to realize she knew better. She had insulted him, unthinkingly so, and suddenly she was genuinely sorry. His pride and anger had that honesty about it that she felt in his affection, and she bitterly regretted her silly, unfeeling words.
That night she had a restless, bewildered sleep, and all during the next day she could not keep her mind on her work. Distracted, lonely, she arrived home to find Romano waiting outside the apartment building.
"Romano! Oh, I'm so glad to ... "
"I'm sorry I was so rude, Carissima. I should not have been so abrupt."
"Oh, but I was the one who... "
"If you like, I know of a new restaurant we might try. I hear the wine is excellent; also the seafood. Would you like to come with me?"
Helen was puzzled by his formality, the stiffness with which he behaved upon his return, but later she began to understand. He had felt the sting of insult, but he was in no position to act as he might prefer. She thought it best not to try to apologize again, but tried to make him understand, by behaving as if nothing had happened, that she was genuinely glad he had returned. By evening, apparently, all had been forgotten.
Still, for all his thoughtful attentiveness, for all his seemingly honest affection, Helen was never completely at ease in this incredible relationship. There seemed to her a slight reserve, an impersonal attitude in Romano which she could never quite ignore. His caresses seemed always warm and insistent, but never demanding, never overpowering and vital. Occasionally, she had the feeling that she were being played, as impersonally as a musician handles an instrument, manipulated in order to give the proper performance, but never really with passion, never out of genuine desire or excitement. She never felt quite sure, though she could ignore her doubts frequently and easily, that what she received from Romano was much more than the satisfactions for which she paid.
Still, the time passed in relaxed, uncomplicated contentment, possibly for both of them. Romano often seemed to anticipate he desires, and it gave him apparent pleasure to see Helen joyously content. Then, as her work began to near completion, and her stay in Rome became increasingly short, Romano suddenly surprised her one afternoon with a gift.
"I have been cheating on you, Carissima," he explained, gravely. "Out of they money we pay for food, I've managed to save a little now and then. I would have returned it, but I preferred to give you this instead."
His present was a fine silk scarf, printed in many glowing colors.
"Romano, it's beautiful!" Helen pulled the filmy material quickly over her hair, and ran to admire it in a mirror.
"Wear it, sometimes, when you are back home; when you wish to feel beautiful," Romano said, softly coming up behind her. Helen turned her smile to him, and kissed him. And suddenly she found herself clutched tightly in his arms.
"Helen, I have held other women," Romano whispered tensely. "You are not, perhaps, the prettiest. But, Helen, with you I have known a ... not a joy, but a contentment, a satisfaction with you, and with myself, that I shall always miss, once you are gone. You have made me happy, Helen. No woman I've ever known has done that, and I am so grateful that my life has been touched by yours." He kissed her again, and she wanted to make some answer, until she felt a tear burn both their cheeks, and knew that words could never frame a proper reply.
That night, and in the brief weeks to follow, Helen discovered what it was that had made their love- making unsatisfactory. It was not his reserve, but hers; her constant appraisal, her vague yet insistent suspicion. That night she relaxed and forgot her fears completely, and at once discovered that depth of affection and satisfaction that can only be based on trust.
As the day of her departure grew nearer, Romano retreated, outwardly, more and more into a shell of impersonality. He refused all the cash she tried to leave with him, and would not let her spend lavishly on silly presents. Only at night, silently, could he be his affectionate self. Helen broke into a fit of weeping once, but once she saw how much it pained him she decided to try, at least, to imitate his stoicism. They managed a rather stiff goodby at the apartment, and Romano refused to become a part of the confusion at the docks. Helen's summer of research in Rome had come to an abrupt, inevitable end.
* * * * * * * *
Helen finished her gin-and-tonic in one long gulp, and turned suddenly to Tom. "What time is it?"
"It's early yet. Only ... ten of eleven."
Oh lord, I've got to go," Helen said, grabbing up her purse. "I have a class to teach at nine, and no preparation yet. Thanks for the drink," she said, sliding out of the booth.
"Going so soon?" Harry wanted to know, Helen's departure breaking into his concentration.
"Yeah, it's early yet," Cathy commented.
"Not for me. I have to work for my tuition. See you all."
"Hey, wait a second, Helen," Tom called, hurrying after her down the aisle. He caught her affectionately around the middle. "Can't I at least see you home?"
"I've got work to do tonight, Tommy, thanks." Helen extracted a crumpled, slightly soiled printed-silk scarf from her handbag, and tied it carefully over her head.
"Helen," Tom said, turning her shoulders to him with his free hand. "Look, let's go to my place, huh? Not for long, I promise? Hmmmn? How about it?"
Helen smiled. "Thanks for the compliment, Tommy, but I'd rather not."
"Some other night, then, huh?"
"Maybe. We'll see." He tried to kiss her, but she evaded his embrace. "Good night, Tommy."
"Good night," he said, capturing her hand for an awkward kiss. "Sleep tight." He saluted her retreating figure, and returned to the booth.
"Why d'ya want to keep after a dog like that?" Harry greeted him.
"Yeah, she's frigid," said Cathy. "You're wasting your time."
"Ah, you don't understand a woman like that," Tom said. "Look at her; how much do you want to bet she's never had a real man before? With those legs, and that figure? No wonder she's all frost."
"So my guess is, just give her a real good time once, and she'll find out she really likes it."
"Aah, you're cracked."
"You wait and see. Once she gets a taste of a real man, I'll bet she'll be a pushover. You wait and see."
CAPER Magazine, Vol VI No. 6
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