I went to Italy in 1987 disdainful of boys and scared of sex.
My disdain for boys dated back to high school. I went to an all-girls’ prep school and had the requisite crush on the football star, but when an actual boy showed actual interest in me, I was horrified.
I was the Jewish girl who would never lead a cheer, play field hockey, or be nominated as the May Queen. I wrote passionate, indignant, occasionally thoughtful opinion pieces for the school newspaper, which attracted the attention of a nice-looking, preppy rich boy who favored madras shorts and Ralph Lauren polos with the collar turned up. He had just broken up with the girl who led cheers, played field hockey and would definitely be nominated for May Queen.
The preppy rich boy asked me to the prom, and during the weeks leading up to the big event called me regularly, praising my latest Op-Eds. He told me that I was a locked door and he was the key. I didn’t like being compared to a door, and I didn’t like the subtle (or not so subtle) sexual reference. I felt like he was just buttering me up with all that talk about how smart I was, and I just wanted him to keep his key far from my lock.
On prom night he took me to the Liberty Memorial, presumably to see if he could steal a kiss. But my contempt for him must have been so palpable that he abandoned the idea, and me, as soon as we got to the dance hall.
I loosened up in college, but seemed to gravitate to a string of unavailable, uninterested, and unrequited loves. It was as if deep down I held a contempt towards men and sex, and had a complete ineptitude when it came to the rituals of dating.
The situation wasn’t helped by my choice of major, semiotics, which seemed only to confirm my suspicions towards sex. We watched movies like Psycho , how Hitchcock’s camera devoured the ripe body of Janet Leigh, how her sexuality and promiscuousness would ultimately lead to a terrible, bloody death in the shower. We learned about the gaze, the other, the objectification of women. Sex seemed a very sinister, shady business.
My semiotics professor encouraged me to take a semester abroad in Rome. Maybe he thought Rome would be the antidote to my overly analytical mind.
Indeed, Rome brought out in me a lack of criticalness that verged on derangement. From the Pantheon to the piazzas, I loved everything. And everybody seemed to love me. The men, that is. The men at the bakery, the men behind the bars, the men picking up the garbage. I walked the streets in my baggy jeans and sneakers, provoking whistles and wanton looks from swarthy men who seemed completely oblivious to the rail-thin Italian beauties who strode the cobblestone streets effortlessly in their spiked heels. For some reason, they preferred my limp brown hair and pale fleshy body. Suddenly, I was exotic.
And suddenly, they were all exotic, too. No longer did I turn up my nose at their supposed baseness and brashness, or think I was smarter, better and above it all. I was intrigued by everything. It was like one of those beautiful, languorous foreign films where nothing happens, but watching it you’re mesmerized, and every mundane word seems pregnant with meaning.
There was Ferdinando, who looked like an old-time movie star with his shiny black hair and deep brown eyes, his reserved manner, and quiet smile. When I discovered that he was a 41-year-old mailman who still lived with his parents, I was unfazed. There was Romolo, a blond-haired, blue-eyed stud who, if he lived in the states, would not have given me a second glance. When I discovered he was an unemployed drug addict, I decided to try my luck elsewhere, but didn’t hold it against him. There was Marco, the assistant director. He had deep blue eyes and long black hair and wore a black turtleneck underneath a stone-colored trench coat. When I learned he was engaged, I pretended I had no idea what fidanzata meant.
And then there was Fabrizio-a mechanic and a socialist with a fascination for the Sandinista rebels of Nicaragua. He would come to the wine bar where I hung out, dressed in his royal-blue coveralls that never showed a bit of grease or grime. He would never drink more than a single glass of red wine and never seemed to speak to anyone while he was there. When he finally got up the nerve to approach me, he began by saying that all Americans are obsessed with money. It was an odd way to pick up a girl, telling her she was materialistic and money-grubbing, but I told him that as a semiotics major I read a lot of Marx, so we really weren’t so far apart in our views.
For the next few weeks, Fabrizio and I would meet at the wine bar, have a glass of wine, then go off to dinner, movies, drives, and lots of make-out sessions in his beat-up Jeep, the floor of which had eroded so much you could see through to the street. Fabrizio was a gentleman in every way, paying for my meals and carrying my shoes as we walked along the beach and even acknowledging that some Americans weren’t capitalist pigs. He was attentive but not subservient, sweet but never cloying, and sexy without being scary.
I had come to Rome determined to visit all the major basilicas, see all the Caravaggios, cross all the bridges that traversed the Tiber, and walk along all the city’s winding roads. So as nice as my nights were with Fabrizio, it was time to move on.
The other men had seemed to understand that I was a young American student in Rome for a few short months who just wanted to have fun without obligations. Fabrizio didn’t. At first I simply avoided him by not going to the wine bar for a while. When I finally returned one night I found him standing outside, drinking whiskey from a lowball glass.
I gave him a contrite smile as I walked past him. I ordered my wine and talked with my friends, trying to ignore him but aware that he was staring at my back. After a few minutes he approached my group, but before he could say anything I turned and walked out the door. A minute later, he walked outside, and before I could walk away he said, " Mi tratti come un ogetto !"
I looked at him quizzically, having no idea what he was saying. So he repeated it: " Mi tratti come un ogetto !"
Tratti . That means treat. Ogetto ? I was drawing a blank. " Ogetto ?" I asked him.
" Ogetto !" he shouted. When I looked at him still confused, he said it again, this time holding up his glass and pointing to it. " Ogetto !" Then he walked away.
I turned to my friend. "I treat him like a glass?"
"No," my friend said. "You treat him like an object ."
So there it was, the final word of my beautiful, languorous foreign film that was so pregnant with meaning.
Thanks to Fabrizio, I learned that sex, by its very nature, is not sinister or shady. It’s people like me who make it so.
Photograph of man by David De Lossy/Photodisc/Getty Images.