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“I don’t want this to change anything with our respective relationships,” he says, minutes after cumming in me. The sheets are still damp with sweat. My heartbeat, which had been slowing, brakes. A shard, heavy and sharp, thuds in the pit of my stomach; my hopes for us vanishing in digestive waters.
“That’s one way to kill the afterglow.” I roll onto my side.
“Oh sorry, I didn’t mean to. I freaked out,” he says, his Italian accent as strong as the cigarettes he smokes, cigarettes I steal when we meet for drinks and fall into bed. “I saw suddenly the absolute worst thing that could happen. Please, no one can know about this. Please, Layla.”
The absolute worst thing that could happen: losing his wife and being stuck with me. Between her and me, I’m not getting the last lifejacket. I’ll be left on the sinking ship, watching sharks circling and corpses bobbing in the water.
I wonder what sinking ship is in Italian. The only thing that comes to mind is affondamento volontario – scuttling, sinking a ship on purpose. I can’t correctly conjugate verbs, I can’t find a job, but I can recall obscure naval terminology.
He turns on his side, wrapping his arms around me. His chest presses against my back as he kisses my neck. I want to be a wall of ice. But at the delicate tension of his arms I melt almost instantly, rotating into the light carpet of hair on his chest. He tells me that he’s worried about me, that he cares about me.
“It’s natural to care about a friend, no?” His arms pull me in closer.
Something else I hadn’t prepared for – friend. A cold blade struck between my shoulders. Go on, drive the dagger in deeper, I think. Let it sever my spinal cord, go right through and break the sternum. If I bleed, would it matter?
“Yes, Checco, it’s normal. Otherwise you’d hardly call them a friend,” I say, with forced nonchalance.
We’ve been friends for nearly 20 years now, ever since he studied abroad at my university. We kept in touch through irregular emails. I’d been in Italy for over a year, following my husband and his work transfer, when Francesco reached out. Messages led to drinks, led to flirting, led to sex.
Nothing says friendship more than fucking the life out of each other.
We are friends. Friends who send erotic photos to each other, which are quickly enjoyed then deleted. Friends who meet for cocktails at discreet hotels that don’t question surnames or cash payments. I’d pour myself into crotchless knickers, garter belts, and stockings for any of my friends. He probably wears silk boxers when he meets his other friends, too. I know he considers me a good friend when his cock is in my mouth. I tell him how good he is when he’s licking my clit like gelato.
The remnants of our pleasure are drying on my skin, soon to crystallise and peel off. I wish I had clenched, held that small dose of him in me longer. Futile; it would have oozed out. Nothing would have come from it anyway.
His hand glides down my back and rests on my bum.
I knew where things were headed: my blush when he said my lacrosse uniform drove him crazy; his bad jokes making me smile during an otherwise shitty day; wearing clothes I had buried in my wardrobe believing I was too old, fat, and frumpy. I knew I’d get in over my head. But I couldn’t resist.
I should have silenced him when he said I looked cute. I should have kept a respectable distance, not leaned in tempting him with my lips. I should have slapped his hand away when it caressed my thigh. But I didn’t.
Affondamento volontario – the shipwreck of my marriage, and of our friendship.
“It does bother me a bit, Layla, to see you not happy,” he says, ignoring my kisses along his bearded jaw. He calls me by my name, another sign of friendship. Lovers say amore, tesoro, luce della mia vita. I am none of those.
I sense a trap. I am fantasy, and fantasies don’t talk about problems. He has his wife for real conversations – who should pick the kids up from school, if they should spend their anniversary in the mountains or at the beach, what pasta machine they should buy.
But me, I’m light entertainment, substitute porn. I’m supposed to giggle and get wet. I should brush off his gentle concern, keep it light and airy. The sincerity in his voice, though, encourages me. So I tell him everything, nearly everything.
“I can’t keep being a PA, and what I’d really love to do I’m too old to start now.” His fingers draw circles on my bum cheek. “I don’t fit in here. It’s true, Checco, don’t shake your head. Waiters can’t understand me, my clothes are too casual, and I’m allergic to gluten.”
I hesitate, scared that I’m leaving myself exposed. But vulnerability creates intimacy, so I’ve read.
“I’m married to a good man but I don’t know if I love him anymore,” I finally say, my tongue feels like an anchor.
Checco untangles himself, climbs out of bed, and pours us each a fresh glass of wine from the room service we ordered earlier.
“Layla, it’s typical for relationships to have highs and lows. It’s with all couples. I don’t want to be the bad influence on your marriage,” he says, not looking at me as he sips his glass of chilled Gavi. Obviously, his marvellous marriage is at an all-time high.
“No, Checco. You’re not the bad influence.”
I am. My husband is always reliable, never lies, universally beloved by friends and family. He’s seen me at my very worst, my most horrible and my most vulnerable, and stayed. But I still can’t make love endure.
Nothing I want lasts. A bottle of wine guzzled in a couple of hours, a tub of ice cream devoured within three days, a new top maybe five months before it’s stained and full of holes. An exciting, imaginative lover? Eight months, if this scenario is anything to go by. I wanted a caring, stable partner to love and cherish until the end of my days. But ten years later and here I am, blowing holes in the hull.
“The appointment with the doctor was OK?” Checco asks, leaning against the wall rather than coming back to bed. Do I tell him?
“I’m infertile.” The words come out flat and cold.
I was always ambivalent about children. It was a decision I never actively made. And now I have no choice.
His expression is difficult to read. Maybe he’s relieved he doesn’t have to worry about all the unprotected sex we’ve had. Or maybe my worth has decreased; I now offer less than his wife. I can’t compete.
“Oh, Layla,” he says, walking over to the bed and offering me a glass of wine. He sits on the side of the mattress, and as I take the glass, he pulls me into a hug.
Maybe my marriage wouldn’t be failing if we’d had kids. Kids seem to be the glue that keeps marriages together. Checco and his wife have kids. That’s why everything is fantastic for him, for them. They are bonded forever, the perfect family unit. Why would he ever disrupt that for me, the unholy mess?
Checco has his flawless wife and beautiful family. I imagine them at Sunday lunch after church: the food expertly spiced, the wine dutifully poured, and the kids practically bouncing after spending over an hour sitting still.
He has me when he’s bored with porn, and I make it very easy for him. I never fail to respond or turn up in stilettos and silk.
Now the air feels sombre, and our embrace is awkward and distant. Previous post-coital conversations were much happier, like when Checco told me his ten-year plan. He wants to move to the Campania countryside to produce olive oil and limoncello. His eyes sparkled when he talked about future dinner parties, candlelit and citrus-perfumed. I’d give anything to be there with him, pressing olives and preserving lemon peel.
I start kissing the top of Checco’s shoulder, working my way up to his lips. I’ll be happy there with you, I promise, I’ll drop everything and run to the countryside with you. My hand creeps from his neck and down his chest. Just tell me you love me. Checco’s hand catches mine, stopping its progress. Before my lips can reach his, he presses his head against mine, blocking my route. It’s a gentle request to stop. He’s never refused me before.
He gets up, heads to the bathroom, and turns on the shower. I’ve gained his pity, not his love. I’ve revealed too much, ruining my only bit of happiness in the last year.
I finish my drink, clamber out of bed, take the bottle from the ice bucket, and pour myself another. Finding my slip, I pull it on and don’t bother with the rest of the lingerie. Without his lusty stare, I feel like a sausage spilling out of its skin. Boobs overflowing their cups, belly bulging against the garter belt, thigh fat slopping over stockings.
He’ll shower and dress, then head home. He never misses taking the boys to soccer practice in the morning.
Staring into my glass of wine I realise that what I know about Checco is merely a splash. There’s an entire ocean of him; an ocean she’s charted and explored. I’m drowning in a puddle.
“I’m such an idiot,” I mutter, just as the water turns off.
When pulling his up trousers, he pauses to kiss me and thank me for a magical evening. When I mention that I’ll have a free weekend soon, he says his parents will visit shortly, for his youngest’s birthday. He has the most adorable expression as he talks about his plans to celebrate his son. I smile, one that’s as sweet as it is bitter, and say it all sounds incredibly fun. He kisses me so intensely that we’re both breathless when we break apart.
As he leaves the hotel room, he gently strokes my cheek and says he’s happy we’ve stayed in touch all these years. I nod and wonder if I’ll ever see him again.
When he’s gone and I’ve closed the door, I curse out loud. He has never made me any promises. He’s never said this was anything more than what it is – just friends. I wish I had his skill. I’m a sucker for someone who says I’m pretty. Say you want me and I’ll scuttle my whole life for you.
But Francesco can compartmentalize – fuck one, love the other. Checco and Chià will grow old together with their children amongst the olive and lemon trees while I’m here, alone in a hotel room. I knew this would all come to naught, I can’t make anything last. Nothing is more tempting than destruction. I’m a human torpedo. I’m my own bad influence.