One obvious topic still needs to be addressed concerning my whole pursuit of pleasure thing in Italy: What about sex?
To answer that question simply: I don't want to have any while I'm here.
To answer it more thoroughly and honestly--of course, sometimes I do desperately want to have some, but I've decided to sit this particular game out for a while. I don't want to get involved with anybody. Of course I do miss being kissed because I love kissing. (I complain about this so much to Sofie that the other day she finally said in exasperation, "For God's sake, Liz--if it gets bad enough, I'll kiss you.") But I'm not going to do anything about it for now. When I get lonely these days, I think: So be lonely, Liz. Learn your way around loneliness. Make a map of it. Sit with it, for once in your life. Welcome to the human experience. But never again use another person's body or emotions as a scratching post for your own unfulfilled yearnings.
It's a kind of emergency life-saving policy, more than anything else. I got started early in life with the pursuit of sexual and romantic pleasure. I barely had an adolescence before I had my first boyfriend, and I have consistently had a boy or a man (or sometimes both) in my life ever since I was fifteen years old. That was--oh, let's see--about nineteen years ago, now. That's almost two solid decades I have been entwined in some kind of drama with some kind of guy. Each overlapping the next, with never so much as a week's breather in between. And I can't help but think that's been something of a liability on my path to maturity.
Moreover, I have boundary issues with men. Or maybe that's not fair to say. To have issues with boundaries, one must have boundaries in the first place, right? But I disappear into the person I love. I am the permeable membrane. If I love you, you can have everything. You can have my time, my devotion, my ass, my money, my family, my dog, my dog's money, my dog's time-- everything. If I love you, I will carry for you all your pain, I will assume for you all your debts (in every definition of the word), I will protect you from your own insecurity, I will project upon you all sorts of good qualities that you have never actually cultivated in yourself and I will buy Christmas presents for your entire family. I will give you the sun and the rain, and if they are not available, I will give you a sun check and a rain check. I will give you all this and more, until I get so exhausted and depleted that the only way I can recover my energy is by becoming infatuated with someone else.
I do not relay these facts about myself with pride, but this is how it's always been.
Some time after I'd left my husband, I was at a party and a guy I barely knew said to me, "You know, you seem like a completely different person, now that you're with this new boyfriend. You used to look like your husband, but now you look like David. You even dress like him and talk like him. You know how some people look like their dogs? I think maybe you always look like your men."
Dear God, I could use a little break from this cycle, to give myself some space to discover what I look like and talk like when I'm not trying to merge with someone. And also, let's be honest--it might be a generous public service for me to leave intimacy alone for a while. When I scan back on my romantic record, it doesn't look so good. It's been one catastrophe after another. How many more different types of men can I keep trying to love, and continue to fail? Think of it this way--if you'd had ten serious traffic accidents in a row, wouldn't they eventually take your driver's license away? Wouldn't you kind of want them to?
There's a final reason I'm hesitant to get involved with someone else. I still happen to be in love with David, and I don't think that's fair to the next guy. I don't even know if David and I are totally broken up yet. We were still hanging around each other a lot before I left for Italy, though we hadn't slept together in a long time. But we were still admitting that we both harbored hopes that maybe someday . . .
I don't know.
This much I do know--I'm exhausted by the cumulative consequences of a lifetime of hasty choices and chaotic passions. By the time I left for Italy, my body and my spirit were depleted. I felt like the soil on some desperate sharecropper's farm, sorely overworked and needing a fallow season. So that's why I've quit.
Believe me, I am conscious of the irony of going to Italy in pursuit of pleasure during a period of self-imposed celibacy. But I do think abstinence is the right thing for me at the moment. I was especially sure of it the night I could hear my upstairs neighbor (a very pretty Italian girl with an amazing collection of high-heeled boots) having the longest, loudest, flesh-smackingest, bed-thumpingest, back-breakingest session of lovemaking I'd ever heard, in the company of the latest lucky visitor to her apartment. This slam-dance went on for well over an hour, complete with hyperventilating sound effects and wild animal calls. I lay there only one floor below them, alone and tired in my bed, and all I could think was, That sounds like an awful lot of work . . .
Of course sometimes I really do become overcome with lust. I walk past an average of about a dozen Italian men a day whom I could easily imagine in my bed. Or in theirs. Or wherever. To my taste, the men in Rome are ridiculously, hurtfully, stupidly beautiful. More beautiful even than Roman women, to be honest. Italian men are beautiful in the same way as French women, which is to say--no detail spared in the quest for perfection. They're like show poodles. Sometimes they look so good I want to applaud. The men here, in their beauty, force me to call upon romance novel rhapsodies in order to describe them. They are "devilishly attractive," or "cruelly handsome," or "surprisingly muscular." However, if I may admit something not entirely flattering to myself, these Romans on the street aren't really giving me any second looks. Or even many first looks, for that matter. I found this kind of alarming at first. I'd been to Italy once before, back when I was nineteen, and what I remember is being constantly harassed by men on the street. And in the pizzerias. And at the movies. And in the Vatican. It was endless and awful. It used to be a real liability about traveling in Italy, something that could almost even spoil your appetite. Now, at the age of thirty-four, I am apparently invisible. Sure, sometimes a man will speak to me in a friendly way, "You look beautiful today, signorina," but it's not all that common and it never gets aggressive. And while it's certainly nice, of course, to not get pawed by a disgusting stranger on the bus, one does have one's feminine pride, and one must wonder, What has changed here? Is it me? Or is it them?
So I ask around, and everybody agrees that, yes, there's been a true shift in Italy in the
last ten to fifteen years. Maybe it's a victory of feminism, or an evolution of culture, or the inevitable modernizing effects of having joined the European Union. Or maybe it's just simple embarrassment on the part of young men about the infamous lewdness of their fathers and grandfathers. Whatever the cause, though, it seems that Italy has decided as a society that this sort of stalking, pestering behavior toward women is no longer acceptable. Not even my lovely young friend Sofie gets harassed on the streets, and those milkmaid-looking Swedish girls used to really get the worst of it.
In conclusion--it seems Italian men have earned themselves the Most Improved Award. Which is a relief, because for a while there I was afraid it was me. I mean, I was afraid maybe I wasn't getting any attention because I was no longer nineteen years old and pretty. I was afraid that maybe my friend Scott was correct last summer when he said, "Ah, don't worry, Liz--those Italian guys won't bother you anymore. It ain't like France, where they dig the old babes."