The Last Time I Saw You is a series dedicated to those I’ve met on the road, those fellow ships passing in the night. For all of the instalments of the series, please click here. Please note that I often change details in these stories as to protect and respect the individuals mentioned.
The last time I saw you, I knew it would be the last time. Isn’t that a strange feeling? To say goodbye to someone and know you’ll never see them again.
“I’ll see you in a couple of months,” you said to me, your mouth pressed against my ear. We were the same height. I felt the stubble on your chin brush against my cheek as you pulled away, the scent of you lingering for just a moment. Above us was a bright blue sky, an early morning sun. Shopkeepers were just starting to unpack the city, pulling chairs out on café sidewalks, opening shutters on the fruit stalls. A man wearing a loose suit jacket swept outside his bookstore, a steady rhythm of straw hitting concrete.
“I’ll see you in a couple of months,” I echoed, grabbing my backpack off of the cobblestones. We kissed one more time, a quick one, and you tucked a piece of my hair behind my ear.
“Ciao,” you smiled at me.
“Ciao,” I smiled back, turning toward the train station, all the air leaving my lungs.
We met in the mountains, surrounded by cool air and the scent of lavender. A friend of a friend, we were both staying in a house filled with wine bottles and old books. At night, we ate homemade pasta under a sky so big you’d swear you could see to the other side of the world, the stars as never-ending as the grappa.
The first night, we talked until the sun came up, a crackly stereo playing rock and roll songs in the background. I had been instantly attracted to you – your olive skin, your long, dark eyelashes – but I thought you had a girlfriend. Your English was good but not great, and I swear you said your girlfriend lived in Rome.
“I can take you out on the Vespa tomorrow,” you said to me, sitting on the couch across from mine. Outside, fireflies filled the sky, bursts of light against the black. We were in a tiny village in Tuscany, and I was eager to explore the area.
And with only a few hours of sleep behind us, the next morning we did just that. I clutched to you as you drove me to village after village, stopping occasionally for thick slices of oil-soaked focaccia or strong cups of espresso. I held on to you harder still as you drove me into the mountains, higher and higher, winding up sun-dappled roads. At one point some tourists drove in front of us, and a passenger snapped photos of us from their car; I pictured the image, the two of us on this little Vespa, and what the tourists would say about the photo when they got home.
“This was a couple we saw in Italy,” I imagined they’d say, and it felt like I was living in a movie.
That night we took our wine and sat in the grass, a blanket wrapped around us, the moonlight illuminating the tops of the mountains.
“Today was really fun,” I said to you, laughing. I felt relaxed around you. I liked you, yes, but because you had a girlfriend, I knew nothing would come of it. It was almost better that way; I had been completely myself, not worrying about looking or acting desirable.
“It was really fun,” you responded. You were smiling, your eyes fixed on the horizon. You turned toward me, and my stomach sank. I wanted to kiss you.
“So… does your girlfriend ever come up here from Rome?” Flustered, I needed to break the tension.
“Girlfriend?” your smile dropped. “I don’t have a girlfriend. My ex-girlfriend lives in Rome. We broke up three months ago.”
“Ohhh,” I answered, drawing the vowel out longer than it should have been. It was my turn to stare out at the mountains. It suddenly seemed very quiet, and I watched as the moon was swallowed by a cloud, disappearing into a blur of silver and grey. The still air was broken by your laughter.
“You’re silly,” you said to me, taking a long drink of your wine.
That night, I said a quick goodbye. I had to be up early to get to the train station; I was catching a train to Pisa, where I’d fly back to London. I was visibly awkward, and I could feel how stilted and stiff I was as I kissed you on the cheek goodnight.
I had barely gotten into bed when I heard a knock on my door, so quiet I thought I had imagined it. My room was in a separate section of the house and had its own door that opened out onto the only street in the village. Hesitating, I opened it a crack.
“Hi,” you said to me. You looked at the ground, then back at me, your eyes fringed with dark lashes.
“Hi,” I said, opening the door. “Is something wrong?” I stood there in my bare feet, the moon so bright overhead that we were both bathed in white.
“I…,” you looked down again, and then stepped one step closer. “I was wondering if I could spend the night with you.”
Sometimes I wonder if I’m cursed.
I have a pattern of dating men who are still in love with another woman. Do I choose them, or do they choose me? Maybe we’re drawn to one another: them to me because I’m a shiny new thing, me to them because I believe I can fix even the most emotionally damaged man, the most broken man.
I see the pattern again and again: they tell me how refreshing I am, how fun I am. How they fought constantly with their ex, and that I’m nothing like her. And yet, one way or another, she creeps into our lives, a third wheel that’s always lingering in the air.
I’ve struggled with this curse a lot in my dating life and even been cheated on because of it, the men going back to their exes emotionally or physically or both. It’s enough to make you think that maybe you’ll never be chosen, that maybe you’ll never be capable of being loved enough. I’ve ended good connections because I’ve realized that I’m the rebound, that I’m playing second fiddle.
So maybe I’m the third wheel, because she never really left.
When I got back to London, we kept in touch every day, first by text, then by long phone calls and Skype calls that lasted into the night. We talked for two months, and I started planning my visit back to Italy. I made up some story about having to fly back anyway for work, so why wouldn’t I just swing by your hometown to say hello?
I still remember what you looked like through the train window when I saw you again, your hands in your pockets until the doors opened. I ran into your arms. I wasn’t used to being kissed like that in public; you didn’t care that we were on a train platform where anyone could see us. When we got back to your apartment you carried me through the door, threw me on the bed as I squealed and laughed. I felt like I could have stayed there forever, the church bells in the distance the only indication that time was real.
We holidayed by the sea where we ate bruschetta with anchovies. We rented a boat for the day and drank cold white wine straight out of the bottle, our hands and faces sticky from the oranges you bought from a man on the dock. I swam topless in the waves, diving down until I hit the point where the water suddenly turned cold against my skin.
“Please let me remember this forever,” I said to myself again and again as I lay on the boat under the Italian sun, you at my side. Your skin was tanned a dark brown, perfect and smooth.
That night – I don’t remember why – there was a fireworks display, and we watched them from the shoreline as they burst over the water.
“I’m falling in love with you,” you told me, your eyes filled with reflections of exploding greens and blues and reds.
The next day, we drove back to your hometown in your tiny Fiat. I couldn’t help it; I started imagining a life here, started imagining what it might be like to live here with you.
Your phone dinged. I was holding it in my hands as you had asked me to look up the name of a restaurant you were trying to remember along the route. It was your ex. I didn’t see what she wrote, but I saw the emojis, saw the red hearts as they filled the screen. My heart dropped. It felt like that dive in the ocean, when the water suddenly turns cold.
“It’s fine, we’re just friends,” you said, as I handed the phone back to you. And then, when silence filled the car, “Don’t be weird.” You never gave me your phone again after that.
Over the next three days, I felt the mood shift. The spell was broken, and I felt anxious and tense whenever you looked at your phone. I tried to be the person you met – the refreshing one, the fun one, the shiny new thing – but a seed had been planted, and I could feel the ground shifting beneath us.
On the last night you took me to a small trattoria in town where we ate linguini with clams and mussels. Over your second glass of grappa after dinner, I asked you if you’d like to see me again.
“Si,” you replied casually. “I already said I would come visit you in London.” I searched for the fireworks in your eyes. I didn’t understand how everything could change in such a short time.
We said goodbye the next morning, and I knew it would be the last time I saw you.
Back in London, I missed the warmth of you. I could still feel the heat of the sun on my skin that first night home as I lay in bed, staring out the window at a starless sky. You hadn’t even texted to see if I got home ok, and I knew I wouldn’t hear from you again. I felt like a fool for dreaming I could have had that life, for dreaming I could have had you.
The last I heard, you got back with your ex, and then – like they always do – you broke up again a few months later. A few months after that – like they always do – you got in touch with me, asked how I was. I never responded.
I still think of you sometimes, think of the way you looked at me in the moonlight as we stood in that doorway in Tuscany, everything hinging on one little word: