Christine sighed and sneaked a glance at the reaction of the teenage boys further down the Forum. After their initial confusion, they were waving and laughing at Vanessa’s flirtatious call. Vanessa was Christine’s friend, and Christine wasn’t ashamed of her: but she was ashamed for her. This happened to Christine frequently, and not just in relation to Vanessa; in situations where she felt that other people should be embarrassed by their behaviour, Christine inevitably found herself blushing. She supposed that she should be grateful that she had inherited a less troublesome variation of her mother’s trait. When she was young, Mama had the unfortunate habit of blushing when someone else was guilty. She would recount to Christine all the occasions on which she had been unjustly punished because she blushed when the teacher asked who had written a rude word on the blackboard or made a smart remark in class. Mama had willed herself to overcome her blushing by focusing her mind elsewhere whenever there was blame to be apportioned. Christine promised herself that as soon as she got home, she would ask her mother for more details about exactly how to achieve this thought control.
If Christine had known that Vanessa would go off the rails the second they embarked on this trip to Rome, she might have changed her mind about going. It had been a challenge for her parents to put together an extra four thousand dollars to cover plane tickets, bus transfers, museums, hotel bills and restaurant meals. Her tuition fees were enough of a strain on the family finances: she knew that, even if Mama and Tata didn’t acknowledge it. Merely referring to school as an ‘expense’ was seen by her parents as an insult to an ideal: there was no question in their minds that the most important thing was for their only child to have the best education available. ‘Expenses’ were anything apart from education, and automatically took second place. Her parents would never have entertained the idea of her missing out on the Rome trip.
‘This is your chance to see all those monuments you’ve learned about! How I would have loved the opportunity to do that,’ Mama had enthused.
Despite having grown up on the Continent, Mama had never visited any European country outside the former Yugoslavia. The first international trip she ever made was emigrating to Canada with Tata. That journey had led neither of them to develop a taste for travel, however: it had merely established one of a number of sensible habits that now regulated their lives. Family trips back to Mama and Tata’s village occurred precisely once every five years, unless a family member was getting married or had died, in which case Mama or Tata would make a special trip alone. So Christine, at seventeen, had visited Serbia four times: once just after she was born, another time when she was five, a third visit at ten years of age, and once again two summers ago, just after her fifteenth birthday. Of course, she had no memories of that first trip, when the whole family cooed over the new baby and puzzled over the name her parents had chosen: a strange variant of a familiar name, Kristina. She had memories of her second trip, very positive ones: to her five-year-old self, her grandparents’ farm had been like a private petting zoo. Back home in her small apartment in Toronto, Christine was not allowed any pets at all; in the village in Serbia, her parents didn’t bother telling her not to touch any of the animals, and just reminded her to wash her hands before dinner. Christine had revelled in the pigs’ incredible stench; alternated between chasing the chickens and running away from them; fed stale bread to sheep which gathered around her like a woolly ocean. She couldn’t believe how large a cow was when viewed from up close: they looked so small in farmers’ fields back in Canada, where she observed them from the back seat of her parents’ car as they sped along the highway. Although she’d had a lot of fun on the farm as a child, on her most recent trip to Serbia Christine had craved new sights and sounds, urban ones, and begged her parents to let her spend a couple of days in Belgrade with her cousin Biljana who was studying psychology there.
‘I wouldn’t trust Biljana to look after my goat,’ grunted Tata. ‘You think I’m going to entrust you, my precious daughter, to that fufa?’
‘Her head is always someplace else,’ agreed Mama. ‘I’ll be surprised if she finishes her degree.’
‘Then can’t we spend a few days in Belgrade together, you and Tata and me?’
‘“I”, not “me”,’ corrected Mama. ‘It’s not even my first language, and I know that much.’
‘What do you want to go to Belgrade for?’ Tata intervened.
‘It would be educational,’ said Christine, choosing her angle astutely.
‘Educational!’ Tata scoffed. ‘It’s a dirty, run-down place — an education in how far our country’s fallen, that’s all it would be.’
‘Who knows how long Baba and Deda are going to last?’ Mama added portentously. ‘You should spend as much time with your grandparents as you can. There’ll be plenty of opportunity to explore the world when you’re older.’
Christine knew there would be a class trip to Rome at the end of her final year studying Latin, but when she was fifteen it seemed like part of a distant future. To imagine that trip was like imagining her wedding day: envisioning her future self at these events, she saw a grown-up, graceful, self-confident woman — almost another person, such would be the contrast with the awkward, diffident girl she was now.
A short distance away from Christine’s group, a balding tour guide with a manicured moustache was giving a lecture on the Temple of Venus to a crowd of elderly Italians. Abruptly he stopped his discourse and strode over to Mrs Chilton. He began speaking sternly to their teacher, pointing in Vanessa’s direction. When Mrs Chilton tried to reply in a mixture of Latin and broken Italian, the man immediately switched to English.
‘Professoressa,’ he began in a tone of exaggerated respect. ‘This place is very important to Italians. Please tell your students to maintain the necessary level of respect.’
Vanessa continued to glance seductively over her shoulder at the group of boys, who were now making obscene gestures. The Italian tour guide did an about face, marched up to them, and told them off vigorously in their native language.
‘Vanessa West, stop what you’re doing, this instant,’ shouted Mrs Chilton, somewhat flustered. ‘You’re an embarrassment to me, to the school and to your country. Thank goodness none of you has a Canadian flag stitched to your backpack. We can only hope those people will mistake us for Americans. Look, you’ve made Christine turn red as a tomato.’
The girls all turned to look at Christine and started to laugh, instantly forgetting Vanessa’s scandalous behaviour.
‘You’re so shy, Chris!’
‘Imagine if one of those boys tried to pick her up! I’d love to see her face!’
‘Oh my God, I’d die of laughter!’
‘Well, you won’t have the chance, because me and Poozich are going to meet boys in places you guys never even dreamed of! And you won’t be invited.’
Vanessa slipped her arm through Christine’s and began walking several metres ahead of the rest of the group.
‘Come on, stop looking so shocked. You’re like a traffic light: every time I’m doing something I shouldn’t, I turn around and there you are, bright red. You need to relax and enjoy yourself. Go on, try it: “Ciao, bellezza”!’
‘Who taught you that anyway?’ asked Christine.
‘You just asked her and she told you?’
‘Nope, didn’t even have to: when she found out about the trip to Italy, she told me she’d teach me some useful expressions. “Hey sexy!” came in handy when she was here!’
Although both of Vanessa’s parents were Canadian, and had been for several generations, Vanessa’s mother liked to think that she was part Italian, through sheer sense of affinity with the country’s culture. When Christine met her for the first time, just before the Rome trip, Vanessa’s mother had dropped broad hints about the nature of her own first voyage there.
‘Ahh, you girls are so lucky! Diciassette is the perfect age for a first visit to Italia,’ she cried, closing her eyes blissfully every time she replaced an English word with an Italian one. ‘I’ll never forget la prima volta: all those cute boys with their mopeds – I felt like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Oh, and of course, scads of historia if you’re into that kind of thing. Christine, you’re very studious, aren’t you? Well, I’m sure you’ll both have a marvellous time. Christine, you make sure Vanessa visits at least one museo, and I know I can rely on Vanessa not to leave you out of any mischief.’
Christine had been horrified that anyone’s mother would suggest that teenage girls should get up to mischief on a school trip abroad. Mrs West was clearly living in a dream world: even if they wanted to get up to mischief, Christine was sure that their teacher’s hawk eye would be glued to them at all times. She wouldn’t be surprised if Mrs Chilton locked the girls in their hotel rooms tonight.
‘Seriously, though,’ Vanessa continued, ‘I wish my parents really knew how to speak another language, like yours. Italian for flirts doesn’t count. Hey, tell me how to say… “nice ass” in Serbian!’
Christine giggled, pretending that she knew but didn’t want to tell. She had no idea about Serbian slang, and couldn’t imagine words of the sort ever passing her parents’ lips. Biljana would know, and would happily tell her if Christine ever had a chance to see her again. She imagined travelling across Italy to the Adriatic Coast, hopping a ferry to Croatia, then a train to Belgrade. She could be reunited with her cousin and start on a whole new education.
Later that afternoon, Mrs Chilton took the group back to the hotel for a siesta.
‘I’ll see you back down here by seven thirty for dinner,’ she said, tapping her watch. ‘You’re late, you go hungry. Remember, you’re representing your country, so be serious, punctual, quiet and respectful. SPQR, girls!’
While Christine lined up behind her classmates to await her turn in the tiny elevator, Vanessa took the stairs two at a time, carrying her suitcase as easily as if it were empty. Two minutes later, Vanessa returned and pulled Christine out of the line-up, taking her suitcase.
‘Come on, roomie. Wow, your bag’s really light,’ she said. As they passed the first floor, Vanessa whispered, ‘Wait ‘til you see our room. This place is a dump! I thought Italians were supposed to be the most stylish people in the world!’
They reached the second floor and entered a dim corridor. Vanessa pushed open the flimsy door to their room.
‘I bet your family farm in Serbia looks like the Ritz compared to this.’
Christine cast her mind back to the hotels she had stayed at with her parents when they treated themselves to a weekend of clothes shopping across the border, in Buffalo. Although relatively modest, the hotels had always been of a predictable standard, one she would now have to reassess as luxurious: a reasonably spacious carpeted room with two double beds, each covered with a quilt that matched the curtains; a desk where you would find hotel letterhead stationery and a free pen with the hotel’s name on it; a television with the option of movie channels for an additional fee; an ice bucket, which could be filled as many times as you liked from a machine down the hall; a bathroom with fluffy white towels, tiny bars of soap and miniature bottles of shampoo and conditioner; a strip of paper around the toilet seat saying that it had been sanitised; the first sheet of toilet paper folded into a neat little triangle.
Vanessa and Christine’s room was tiny: once their suitcases were opened, few of the grey-green floor tiles remained visible. Two narrow single beds were lined up parallel against the room’s two longest walls; on each bed a flattish pillow sat atop an army green wool blanket. Half of the tiny window was blocked with an air conditioner, the other half covered with a translucent cotton curtain. Near the door was a battered wooden wardrobe with three misshapen wire coat hangers. There was no television.
‘Where’s the bathroom?’ asked Vanessa, vainly searching for a second door.
‘Looks like we’ll be sharing with everyone else,’ said Christine, stepping back into the hall to look for the communal bathroom.
‘Looks clean enough,’ she reported back to Vanessa. ‘Only there’s no soap.’
‘How cheap can you get?’ Vanessa sneered. She hauled an enormous toiletry bag from her open suitcase.
‘Here, we can share this,’ she said, holding up a full-sized bottle of Issey Miyake shower gel.
‘It’s okay, I’ll just buy a bar of regular soap from a store,’ said Christine, not daring to touch the fancy bottle.
‘Don’t be dumb,’ said Vanessa. ‘My mom has tons: she buys a new one every week.’
Christine started to unpack, but her body felt heavy with exhaustion from the flight and a day’s touring. While Vanessa disappeared to take a shower, Christine lay down on the bed nearest the window. She pulled back the blanket, which was itchy on her bare arms. Though stiff, the fresh linen felt comforting after a sleepless night on the plane; the pillow gently cushioned her head. She fell asleep instantly, but was awoken not long after by a strong smell of perfume.
‘Hey sleepyhead,’ smiled Vanessa, spritzing herself from head to toe with another full-sized Issey Miyake bottle.
‘What are you doing? Aren’t you tired?’
‘Nope. Too excited!’
‘What about? A sad hotel dinner? I don’t think Mrs C will be taking us on any more educational outings tonight.’
‘Poozich, Poozich, where’s your romantic instinct? Doesn’t just being in Rome inflame your passions?’ Vanessa grinned mischievously.
‘Not really,’ Christine muttered, pulling the sheet over her head and rolling over to face the wall. But she couldn’t get back to sleep, and found herself listening to Vanessa as she pattered and rustled around their small room. She made Christine think of the kid that one of her grandmother’s goats had given birth to last time she was in the village. Only a few days old, the baby animal already seemed to find the stall in the barn too small. It jumped in the air with joyful kicks, nearly banging into the walls with every bound. It would be roasted on a spit in seven months’ time, when one of Christine’s cousins announced her engagement.
‘Which colour do you like better, pink or green?’
‘Green,’ said Christine, without opening her eyes.
‘I think I’m gonna go with pink. You don’t mind, do you, Poozich?’
Christine smiled to herself: she had never liked her first name that much. Her parents thought they had chosen a good Canadian name that the family in Serbia would still be able to pronounce, but to Christine it was one that best suited a dependable housewife. She wished that her parents had given her a middle name too, allowing her an alternative option. She had initially been relieved when, at fourteen, she was sent to her current school where the girls left behind the pretty, feminine names their parents had selected for them, and called each other by more masculine short forms instead. On her first day among her new schoolmates, the whiny final syllable of her name was dropped, leaving her with the shorter and punchier ‘Chris’. Now only parents and teachers called her Christine. And then there was the special case of Vanessa, who called her ‘Poozich’: the best approximation she could do of ‘Pusi’.
Christine’s last name had been a bit of a joke for the first few weeks of school. Teachers had hesitated when faced with ‘Pusic’, and politely asked Christine if she wouldn’t mind pronouncing it for them. Her classmates immediately seized on the fact that her surname contained the word ‘pus’, and for the whole of the first term, anyone who had a pimple would ask her for her expert opinion. The final straw was the cafeteria incident, when one of Christine’s more rambunctious classmates had performed a zit imitation, filling her mouth with ketchup and mayonnaise before clapping her hands against her bulging cheeks, spraying Christine with red and white sauce. Christine had resisted bringing further shame upon herself by bursting into tears, at least until the lunch room supervisor escorted her to the staff washroom and gave her a spare uniform to wear. The teasing instantly stopped after that day, not because of the formal warning that had been given to all of her classmates while Christine was cleaning herself up, but because of a general consensus amongst the girls that an unspoken boundary had been crossed.
When Vanessa joined the school, a year later than everyone else, she did not notice anything unusual about Christine’s name. Vanessa was outgoing, and being hilariously obtuse in class ought to have made her popular. Having missed the first year, however, she was destined to remain on the fringes of the dominant cliques, and she found this hard to tolerate. Thus she was thrown into Christine’s company, and the two girls formed a friendship that was as strong as it was surprising. Vanessa had insisted that Christine teach her how to pronounce her last name properly: nobody at the school, even the teachers, had been able to remember how Christine pronounced her own name, and so many variants existed. Feeling that she could trust Vanessa, she went on to confide her initial humiliation, when people had made fun of the word ‘pus’ in her last name. ‘What’s pus?’ Vanessa had asked. Christine’s shock at her friend’s ignorance quickly turned to sadness: how was it that her friend hadn’t picked up this and other precise but useful pieces of vocabulary from her parents? Was Vanessa just not paying attention at home, the same way she zoned out in class? When Vanessa began to invite her over after school, Christine realised that Vanessa wasn’t the problem. Vanessa’s parents were never there, not even on weekends: Christine had never met either of Vanessa’s parents until the day before their trip to Rome. At first there was a housekeeper from the Philippines: when Vanessa and Christine got home from school, they would find her cleaning the dark flagstones of the living room floor to a mirror-like polish, or making cookies from a Betty Crocker mix. But in recent years, Vanessa’s parents had decided that their daughter was old enough to be at home on her own. A cleaning lady came during the day while everyone was out, and Vanessa came home to a house that was empty, apart from the tank of tropical fish set into one wall of the foyer.
‘All dressed up and nowhere to go!’ called Mrs Chilton as they joined their classmates waiting outside the hotel dining room. Her remark was clearly meant for Vanessa, who smiled lazily. The other girls, dressed casually like Christine, stared at Vanessa.
‘Don’t expect to be painting the town red on this trip; we need to be up bright and early to do all our sightseeing. But…’ Mrs Chilton pulled a creased magazine from her handbag. ‘Tonight you’re in luck. I’ve had a look at this week’s ‘Ciao Roma’ to see what’s on, and…’ The girls clustered round expectantly. ‘You’re never going to believe our luck: Spartacus just happens to be playing at a movie theatre right near the hotel!’
There was a silence as disappointment set in.
‘Aren’t we kind of tired?’ one of the girls began tentatively. ‘I hardly slept at all on the plane last night, and…’
‘I think we should go,’ Vanessa interrupted, twirling the end of her enormous pink and purple chenille scarf. This bizarre accessory had emerged from Vanessa’s suitcase just half an hour ago: Christine had never seen her wear anything like it until this trip, and she wondered whether it had been bought specially. Christine was beginning to suspect that Vanessa had been planning this fugue all along; maybe she had only chosen Latin as an elective because she knew there would be a trip to Rome at the end of it. Everything made sense now. Vanessa could have been making a racket with a tuba, splashing paint across a canvas or, easiest of all, mastering the QUERTY keyboard, but instead she’d committed herself to three years’ study of a language which was, to say the least, challenging. She had laboured through the adventures of Cornelia and Flavia, two Roman girls, guessing more or less successfully at what was going with the help of the illustrations and a small Latin-English dictionary. When this failed, she read shamelessly from Christine’s translation. The only pleasure available to her in class, aside from whispering to Christine, was to lead Mrs Chilton off on tangents by asking her questions about Roman life when she was trying to explain a difficult point of grammar.
But maybe Christine just hadn’t had a chance to see this side of Vanessa’s character before. Vanessa often went to parties at other girls’ houses on Friday and Saturday nights. Even if Christine had been invited to these parties, it was highly unlikely that she would have been allowed to go. Mama and Tata would have wanted to call the parents of the girl hosting the party to be assured that it would be a nice party for nice girls: in other words, no boys, no alcohol. As these girls usually hosted their parties without permission when someone’s parents were out of town, Christine could count on staying home on Saturday night to watch the latest Austen or Dickens adaptation on TV. When Vanessa went to these parties, maybe it was normal for her to wear this pink sequinned top, this short jean skirt, these black stilettos. It was clear that the peach-coloured foundation, thick eyeliner and eye shadow, and bold shade of lipstick had been applied with a practised hand. But if this was a familiar look to some of the other girls in her class, why were they now staring? Vanessa had been reprimanded for diverse offences at school, but wearing makeup, jewellery or nail polish was never one of them. Vanessa didn’t have time for such foolishness, Christine thought: she was too busy with rowing, soccer and field hockey. Christine found it hard to associate the tough and powerful Vanessa with this cloud of perfume. She hadn’t even realised that Vanessa had her ears pierced. And where did she get all this jewellery? The shimmery gold earrings, the jangling gold bangles, the large pearl ring: they couldn’t belong to Vanessa’s mother who, Christine had noticed, went for understated silver jewellery.
After a dinner of penne pomodoro served at tables covered with paper tablecloths, the whole class was following Mrs Chilton through dark Roman side streets with an air of celebration. Despite the educational nature of the outing, it was still an unexpected evening out in Rome, and far better than going to bed early in their dismal hotel rooms. The local cinema was small and their group nearly filled it. Vanessa held on tightly to Christine’s arm when they entered the screening room, and found seats at the end of a row.
‘Don’t sit next to Chilton,’ she whispered.
‘Why not?’ asked Christine. Maybe Vanessa was afraid that their teacher would give a running commentary on the film.
‘’Cause I’ve heard she farts at the movies.’ Vanessa rolled her eyes.
But Mrs Chilton came and sat on the other side of Christine. She leaned across and looked over her glasses at Vanessa.
About fifteen minutes into the film, Vanessa stood up. Mrs Chilton reached across and grabbed her arm.
‘Where are you going?’ she whispered.
‘I’ve gotta pee like a racehorse,’ Vanessa announced at normal volume.
Mrs Chilton tutted and released her grip.
Spartacus advanced considerably while Vanessa was gone. Christine was beginning to wonder whether she had got stuck inside the washroom stall when Mrs Chilton whispered, without taking her eyes off the screen,
‘Go and see what’s happened to Vanessa. Make sure you’re back here in five minutes. I’m trusting you, Christine.’
Christine blinked as she entered the foyer where the light from little chandeliers seemed to reflect brightly from the red carpet and flock wallpaper. A bored-looking usher approached her.
‘Il bagno?’ she asked dubiously.
‘Toilets there,’ he pointed. ‘Però la tua amica è andata via,’ he said more quietly, pointing outside. Christine ran to the cinema’s double doors and looked up and down the deserted street. She noticed a moped parked on a bridge over the Tiber where a tall figure with long legs and a fluffy scarf was talking to two dark haired boys.
‘Ciao, Poozich!’ cried Vanessa. ‘What took you so long?’
‘You didn’t tell me you were going anywhere,’ said Christine.
‘This is your friend?’ interrupted one of the boys.
‘Christine,’ Vanessa said slowly and loudly, putting her hand on Christine’s shoulder.
‘And your name…?’ the other boy squinted with embarrassment.
‘Vanessa,’ she said patiently. The boys laughed and repeated the girls’ names before announcing their own, Marco and Matteo.
‘We show you around the city?’ Marco suggested.
‘Sure,’ said Vanessa.
Christine whispered, ‘Chilton’s gonna be here any minute. She’s timing me…’
‘So let’s get a move on!’ said Vanessa, turning towards the shiny red moped.
‘No, no,’ said Matteo. ‘That is not ours. My car is over there.’
‘You have a car?’ asked Vanessa; Christine knew she’d be disappointed, unable to relive her mother’s stereotypically Italian adventure.
‘Yes, I have my own car!’ Marco confirmed with pride.
Christine found herself walking beside Matteo, behind Vanessa and Marco.
‘You are American?’ asked Matteo.
‘No, Canadian,’ said Christine, barely registering offence. Matteo had a boxer’s nose and looked a little shy. Marco didn’t look shy: he looked like a boy who had just grown into his good looks and knew how attractive he was.
Marco led them into a side street where a streetlamp flickered and died. In the momentary light Christine was able to make out a battered old white Fiat. As Marco pulled a small bunch of keys from the tight side pocket of his jeans, Christine had a brainwave.
‘I’m a little tired,’ she announced.
‘Poozich. Come on,’ said Vanessa.
‘Our hotel is right nearby,’ Christine continued, ignoring Vanessa. ‘Maybe you’d like to…walk us back?’
‘Your hotel?’ asked Marco, raising his eyebrows in disbelief. ‘It’s near here?’
Christine nodded and smiled. Vanessa was gazing at her with wide eyes.
‘Are you sure?’ asked Matteo, staring her straight in the eye, smiling.
They began to walk again, but this time Christine and Vanessa were in front and the two boys followed.
‘I’m kind of surprised,’ said Vanessa, her voice catching slightly in her throat.
‘Really?’ said Christine. She looked over her shoulder at the two boys, who were nudging each other and speaking quickly in Italian, smiling broadly.
The journey back seemed much shorter than the trip out: they were already at the hotel’s automatic sliding glass doors. They walked in and Christine requested the key to their room. The clerk behind the desk handed it to her.
‘Buona notte,’ he said. As she turned around, Christine realised the boys were not about to say good night. They expected to come with them. So embarrassing! How was she supposed to tell them there’d been a misunderstanding?
‘Scusate,’ said the clerk. He came out from behind the desk and conferred in clipped Italian with Marco and Matteo. They looked even more annoyed than he did.
‘Signorine.’ The clerk turned to the girls, assuming a more gracious tone. ‘You are our guests, and you are very welcome, but I’m afraid you cannot bring anyone back to your room. Scusi.’
They looked towards Matteo and Marco, still standing in front of the hotel desk. Before Christine could press the button for the elevator, Vanessa had grabbed her hand and was dragging her back out the hotel doors. The boys followed. They gathered to one side, away from the bright lights of the foyer that spilled onto the pavement.
‘Why don’t you and Matteo stand over there?’ Vanessa gave Christine a push which propelled her back into the pool of light, and caused the hotel doors to slide open. The desk clerk looked up, and his dark eyes met Christine’s. He had a nobility in his facial features which, to Christine, suggested reserved strength beneath his anonymous uniform of white cotton shirt and black wool suit. She looked away and moved into the shadows on the other side of the entrance. Matteo was beside her. His brow, his nose, his chin: nothing about them was specially noble, but Christine sensed that underneath the slightly repulsive eagerness, those dirty smiles he had exchanged with Marco on the way to the hotel, he was a good guy. Did it really matter, anyway? She tried to imagine Matteo visiting her in Canada: no, beneath her parents’ anxious gaze, an ambiguous friendship would be impossible. And on his side, she could imagine, there would be a thousand other nights, and as many young tourists or Roman women, every one of them more willing than her. Christine sneaked a glance at Vanessa. Marco was already kissing her, almost violently. He didn’t seem to care that her build was more beefy than willowy, or that she had tiny red spots, like a rash, down the backs of her upper arms.
Matteo took Christine’s hand. Surely he saw the contrast between her style and Vanessa’s, but if he was wishing that he had the girl in stilettos instead of the one in hiking boots, she couldn’t tell. Christine had always imagined that you needed a perfect face or, failing that, a perfect body and a gift for flirtation in order to attract a man. It seemed you needed less than that. Christine instinctively leaned away as Matteo leaned forward. Here, now?
‘Don’t be scared,’ he said. His hand slid along her jawbone, his lips brushing her cheek. All the blood in her body descended to her feet.
‘Matteo, la macchina, andiamo,’ said Marco, and Matteo was moving away from her, and Vanessa was back by her side, holding her upper arm.
‘You’re all white. Are you okay?’ she asked. ‘We don’t have to go with them in the car if you don’t want to. That was maybe enough already, right?’
The street, Vanessa, her own body: for once, only physical impressions pressed themselves upon Christine’s senses, so intense they felt unreal. She didn’t want to wake up, not yet. A babble of female voices became audible at the end of the street and grew louder, Mrs Chilton’s strident voice rising above them all.
‘Christine Pusic and Vanessa West! There you are.’
‘Vanessa wasn’t feeling well.’ The lie passed Christine’s lips instantly, fluently, to her own astonishment. Her hand moved, as if of its own will, to Vanessa’s shoulder.
‘Well you could’ve told me! Thanks to the two of you, everyone had to miss the end of the movie,’ said Mrs Chilton.
‘I’m sorry,’ murmured Vanessa unconvincingly.
‘That’s okay, it’s been a long day for everyone,’ Mrs Chilton sighed, ushering the group into the hotel. ‘Go and get a good night’s sleep, girls. I’ll expect to see you down here bright and chipper, eight a.m. tomorrow!’
‘Good job covering up.’ Vanessa’s voice came, disembodied, in the dark.
‘Thanks,’ said Christine. She felt a her lips tighten into strange smile that could not be repressed. As Vanessa turned on her side, her own grin was caught in a patch of light streaming through the thin curtain.
‘Seriously, I was impressed. You didn’t even blush.’
‘Maybe I’m outgrowing that habit,’ Christine said.
‘So you’re not mad at me?’
‘It could have turned out a lot worse.’
‘I know!’ Vanessa squealed. ‘I couldn’t believe how perfectly it worked out.’
‘Not so perfectly for Marco and Matteo,’ said Christine. She paused. ‘Aren’t you sorry the girls showed up when they did?’
Vanessa snorted. ‘Nah. Marco was way too horny. The rest of tonight would have been short and, really, not that sweet. Why, you wish we’d gone with them?’
‘No…’ said Christine, smiling again. ‘I’m good.’ If they’d experienced this much in just half a day in Rome, how much could happen in an entire week? But then Mrs Chilton would be watching them even more closely after tonight. It was possible, probable even, that tonight would be their only adventure. Christine felt cheated. It had all happened so quickly, and now it was over. Something cautious had snapped inside her, and she felt impatient for more.
Originally from Toronto, Alison Frank lives in London. She has recently published two other short stories: ‘Monster’ in Gold Dust and ‘EXAM: The Birthday’ in Litro. Alison is also the author of the non-fiction book Reframing Reality: The Aesthetics of the Surrealist Object in French and Czech Cinema. You can follow her on Twitter @alisonfrank.
Image credit: Tobias Abel