It’s Only Sex, After All

“We’ve talked about this,” my husband said sternly.

He was right. We had talked and talked, argued, agreed, disagreed and then came to an understanding: it was only sex, and we were adults. We were going to do this thing that so many of our friends seemed to be enjoying without any reservation or concern. It had been too long for both of us and neither was getting any younger — as was evident in how long it took us to get out of bed in the morning. Sex had become a thing that others did while we gradually accepted the real possibility that we may never have it again. But it wasn’t as if we didn’t try — well, almost tried. At times, perhaps, at some dinner party, we would look at each other across the room and for a moment each of us would see the young man he had met long ago. But those two young men were now receiving mail from AARP. When we tried to reenact moments from our past it usually ended with one of us pulling away, softly placing a nostalgic kiss on silent lips while a disheartened “I’m sorry” was whispered in the darkness of the room.

The decision had been made, rules had been set and agreed upon, well… kind of agreed upon. Nowadays, there is an app for anything you want, or think you want. One was specifically of young men offering their services in exchange for a fee. So many of them. It was like shopping on Amazon. Everything was there: price, size charts, features, similar products, and, of course reviews. I could not get over how perfect they all looked. It was daunting, especially for someone who has always believed that only something flawed can be perfect. I told my husband there was no way I could step into a room with someone who spends most of the day in a gym and tanning salon. My body issues refused to even consider the idea. Hell, even their body hair seemed coiffed. The entire process seemed sordid, and worse, unlike Amazon, there was no return policy.

Instead, we signed on to an app that catered to meetings of the kind we were looking for, the unpaid kind. I was convinced that no one would be interested in us, thus releasing me from the anxiety that was slowly building since the agreement had been made between me and my husband. But I was wrong. Who knew that older men were the “in” thing for so many considerably younger ones? We were inundated with requests to meet. At our age, we had become a commodity. My anxiety spiked to new heights.

We finally chose someone, or rather, the choice was made for us because I ran out of excuses as to why the men who were offering themselves would not match up to our sensibilities.

It was going to be fun. Really it was. And Michelangelo’s David and all of Florence could wait. It wasn’t going anywhere. We had planned this trip for years, but somehow had never gotten around to it. Our jobs in the clothing industry constantly took us overseas on short and exhausting jaunts so when it came to vacationing, we usually booked relaxing cruises around the Caribbean. But now that we had the means and more time at our disposal, we finally decided to “see the world.” Italy had always been first on our list — it was where we had most visited during our business trips, but had never had the chance to really discover it. However, our Italian vacation itinerary had now changed. We just didn’t know how much.

“You done?” my husband asked impatiently behind the bathroom door.

“Yes, you can go in,” I said. I paused by the door. “What should I wear?”

“You’re kidding, right?” he responded almost slamming the door in my face.

I stood there for a moment and then threw on jeans and a black t-shirt, my go-to whenever I wanted to look hip. I ran to the Airbnb kitchen, washed cups from our morning coffee, rinsed dishes, put everything in the cupboards, and wiped the counters. Then I decided to fluff up the throw pillows on the couch. The bed was made. I decided to unmake it. Then stepping back, I looked at it and decided to make it up again. The stranger would soon be here. What time? Soon. I looked at my watch. Why was my heart pounding so loudly? It frightened me. The tiny purple flowers on the peeling wallpaper spun around the room. Too much light. It needed to be dark and sultry and mysterious. I struggled to close the old wooden shutters; they simply would not stay shut; they kept swinging open. I pulled and held and tried to make them still. It was an old building, hundreds of years old. Then, with a slam, they held closed except for one shutter tilted to the left. It swung open halfway and would not budge. I should leave it that way, I thought.

Looks like that’s the right amount of light anyway. The sunshine was now replaced by a semi-dark gray light. The wallpaper no longer buzzed with flowers instead it pulsated with tiny black dots. Music? Should I put something on? What? Maybe the loud thumping of my heart would be drowned out?

“I am going to get beer, or wine.” I said loudly through the bathroom door. “Do you think that’s a good idea?”

“Whatever you want,” my husband responded. “Just don’t take forever.”

Soon, I thought. “Yes, I’ll hurry.”

The building’s heavy front door shut behind me. I stood for a moment looking to the right of Via della Colonna and then to the left. I heard the buzzing of Vespas, a perpetual sound of the city. The buildings lining the street seemed to be protecting their occupants standing side by side, tightly shut, silent, concealing behind their massive centuries-old wooden doors, colorful landscaped courtyards and elegant homes with large open windows and billowing white curtains. The browns and grays of the buildings met the shiny cobblestones in a drab blur, and for a moment I felt as if I could not breathe. I looked up wanting to make sure that the blue sky was above, guiding me. The sidewalk was ridiculously narrow, so I stepped out onto the cobblestone street, making sure not to be run down by a gaggle of speeding Vespas that I was sure were just around the corner.

Where had I seen that convenience store? I decided to go left, — left was good, — I was almost positive that’s where the store was. The vicoli were all so similar that getting lost was now the norm, at least for tourists like myself, regardless of paper maps or Google directions.

Yet, no one seemed to care. People wandered, staring up, spinning like tops, mouths agape slowly being swallowed by the beauty of Florence — this city that had been made so very  long ago by men and monsters. The decaying murals of madonnas holding babies, saints holding crosses, and crosses holding christs seemed to be everywhere. I was captivated and terrified of them all at the same time since they were now transforming into reproachful faces warning me of the consequences of the sins that were soon to be committed.

I struggled to put together the right number of coins to pay the smiling clerk who obviously was very happy that I had purchased four bottles of wine and twelve beers of various brands. It may have been easier to hand over a fifty euro note but that would have meant more coins in my pocket. I didn’t have my glasses and couldn’t distinguish the value of the coins so I stuck my hand out, filled with them, and allowed the now slightly annoyed clerk to help himself. He did, I trusted.

The thin plastic bags had been tripled to hold the weight of the bottles. Why had I bought so much booze? Perhaps in the back of my mind, I intended on getting the stranger so inebriated he’d be unable to perform? I breathed a sigh of relief when I was able to navigate back to Via della Colonna. My heart had quieted down but the fear in my belly remained. My cell phone dinged in my pocket. I gingerly placed the bags on the ground.

What’s the exact address? the message read.

Via della Colonna 20, I texted, my fingers trembling as they hit the letters.

Cinque minuti.

I walked slowly. I didn’t want to be waiting when he arrived. As I approached the building there was no one in sight. I guessed that five minutes in Florence must be different than five minutes in New York. I would wait after all. I fumbled with my phone, trying not to drop it as I looked for the code to punch in on the pad. The three bags of wine and beer I was holding rattled.

I figured it might be better to just place the bags down so as not to drop them while I was searching for the code. It was at that moment I noticed a tall, handsome, young man in running gear approach me. Damn! He was wearing sunglasses — not fair. I needed to see his eyes. Would they register any fear or apprehension as mine surely did?

“Ciao,” he said as if he’d known me for years. He couldn’t have been more than twenty- five, perfectly fit, his dirty blonde hair still wet from showering, it seemed. He had a trimmed beard and the whitest, most perfect teeth I’d ever seen. He smiled and for a moment I thought he would start laughing. What could he possibly have seen in us that he chose to meet us? We weren’t repulsive by any means, but our bodies screamed of countless gourmet dinners paired with too many bottles of fine wine. If we moved the wrong way, our backs might very well give out or very possibly trigger our sciatica. It seemed to me that as couples grew old together, they slowly took on each other’s ailments. Memberships to gyms were something we paid monthly but we had only seen the inside of them the day we had signed up and pledged to visit at least three times a week. Why was this man here? I just stood there holding my phone and pointing to it. He must have thought I was an imbecile. He didn’t introduce himself and so, neither did I.

“Do you need help?” he said in English.

I was taken aback for a second. “Just looking for the code to get into the building.”

He took off his glasses but I quickly gazed down. I didn’t want to see his eyes now; I just wanted to get this over with. After four attempts, I finally got the right combination and we were in the cold, dark lobby of the building. He clicked the light switch, and the light illuminated the hallway and the staircase at the end. The switches automatically turned off after a few minutes, so one couldn’t dillydally or make small talk. I hurried down the hallway. It was not until I began climbing the stairs that I realized how heavy the shopping bags had become. I was determined not to ask for help. I fought to climb the five flights of stairs to our Airbnb. The stranger behind me had ample opportunity to stab me and rob me of my wine and beer. I didn’t care. Anything to lessen the cramping in my hands. I was wheezing by the time I reached the front door of the apartment. Completely out of breath, I opened the apartment door and sprung in with the last bit of strength I had, flinging the bags across the dining table, their weight having now become that of large boulders. I could hear my husband in the shower.

“Husband is still getting ready. Wanna beer?” I said, trying to hide my inability to take normal breaths. He sat across the table from me as I laid out different brands of beer. “I didn’t know what you’d like, or what this beer is like, not sure the wine is any good, maybe I should have gone to another store. But I didn’t want to be late, well not that I would have been, I’m never late, it’s just I don’t know the city and might have gotten turned around and probably lost so…”

Thankfully he interrupted me. I knew I sounded like a babbling idiot.

“I like this one,” he said taking the bottle and twisting the cap off. “Would you like to share some of it?”

“No, thank you. I will have some white wine.”

Share. The word hung in the air.

My husband walked in with a shit-eating grin on his face and with a confidence I hadn’t seen in years. Somehow, he had dried himself off and dressed within a couple of minutes of us coming through the front door. He looked like an Italian fascist in 1939, wearing black slacks, a black shirt buttoned to the neck and a white handkerchief tied around his neck. Why? I thought, why?

“Hey! How’s it going?” he asked the stranger, sounding practiced and a bit too loud.

“Hey, good, good…You?” the stranger responded, downing the remainder of the beer, his manner relaxed. It was almost disconcerting.

“Good, good, good! Glad you speak English,” my husband said, relieved as if he had asked the stranger for directions to a restaurant. “Beautiful city you have here,” he continued, picking up a bottle of beer and guzzling as if parched from having just run a marathon in a desert. Then he just stood there, swaying a bit, his self-confidence now seeming to deflate. Perhaps he was finally registering the reality of the scenario and what we were about to do.

No one said anything. It was only a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity. I looked toward the room. The tiny dots swirled, my head spun a bit and I took a deep breath.

“Okay then,” I said, “since everyone is fine and somewhat hydrated, should we get on with it?”

I was closest to the stranger; I took his hand and pulled slightly. He sprung up and followed me into the room. My husband picked up the glass with the remainder of my wine and downed it.

We stood by the bed. I undressed as if I were getting ready for a yearly physical. I placed my clothes neatly on a nearby chair. When I turned the stranger was completely nude on the bed and my husband, having somehow undressed as quickly as Clark Kent turning into Superman, stood above him.

The stranger’s body was exquisite, something I thought I’d be voicing about the David right about now. It was tight and covered with a perfect tan — clearly, he sunbathed in the nude. He wasn’t overly muscular but everything was in proportion. He was smooth with just the right amount of hair, not too much, not too little. I walked toward him and my husband — my body suddenly felt detached from its surroundings. A hand reached out to take my hand, like lovers about to walk along a beach. Courage seeped in — vino veritas, I thought. The pas de trois began, awkwardly, without commitment, without clear direction, oblivious to what the outcome would ultimately be.

In the darkness of the room arms and legs entwined, adjusted, tensed, went back and forth trembling with pleasure and shame. Familiar scents combined with new ones, I held back, then felt myself being pulled in, deliciously teased, and I wondered whether I should try to give in fully, allow myself to let go, without fear, without a care in the world. I opened my eyes. The dots on the wallpaper were now tiny eyes dancing around winking, tearing but also smiling. A familiar kiss — my own eyes getting moist. It was a kiss from the past. It felt so good, so secure, but so far away. A foot hit the back of my head. I stood outside myself looking from above laughing at the absurdity of it all.

A sudden murmur in my ear. A kiss, a sweet passionate kiss. I opened my eyes and for the first time, looked into this stranger’s eyes. They were beautiful, youthful and without any judgment. I wondered if my eyes revealed my anger toward him. How dare you be here? How can you take from me this man whose strength has given me the confidence and security I have needed in order to breathe? Why are you able to give him what he will no longer accept from me? You, a total stranger? He reached for him. I turned away, hating myself for doing it, but unable to accept.

The stranger turned my head with both of his hands and kissed me once again with such passion it frightened me. This was not what this was supposed to be. I turned to my husband, who seemed to be spinning in a spiral that was moving faster and faster away from me until I could no longer touch his hand or see his face and all I was left with were questions. When is love no longer enough? It’s only sex. The words rang in my ears. It had to be or else everything I believed in all my life had all been a farce. It’s only sex. It had to be. I looked at my husband again, his face now lighter, smiling, and for a moment, I could see the young man I had fallen in love with so many years before. It was only sex.

With the same directness as I had mustered in the beginning, I directed it to end, at least for the stranger. His breath grew deeper, faster, and more demanding until he reached his moment of ecstasy. Then I realized I was with him all along, every moment, until the end — his and mine. I had to get out. The stranger’s hand still holding mine, I pulled away without looking at him and disappeared in the bathroom. My heart once again pounding in my chest but no longer from fear.

The water from the shower came out hot, as hot as it could be, burning my skin yet unable to wash away this profound sense of wretchedness. The question now was obvious— where do we go from here? Would this become a normal part of our lives?

I looked in the mirror as I dried myself off. I stepped back. Something about my face. It also seemed lighter, clearer, without shame, and then I saw the young man, the young man I used to be so many years ago, the young man whose heart would always believe in love. I smiled. I went back into the bedroom. My husband and the stranger were getting out of bed.

“He made me come!” my husband announced as if he’d just won the lottery.

“Mazol Tov!” I replied. “Now that it’s done, remember we have dinner plans.”

On cue, the stranger left to shower.

“That was fun! Did you enjoy it?” my husband asked, hopeful that I had.

“Yes, it was nice. Strange but nice.”

My husband came near me and took me in his arms and pulled me close to him. He held me closer than he had in a long time. Then he kissed me with the same passion he had kissed me on a warm night twenty-five years before. “I love you — you know that. I always will, no matter what,” he said.

“Yes, I know,” I said, taking his hands. “It was only sex, after all.”



Image: Michelangelo’s David by Brian Dooley, licensed under CC 2.0.

Frank Castelluccio
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  1. I loved this story. Gay or straight, what it takes to rejuvenate a long, but still loving marriage, is both specific and universal here. Thanks, Frank Castelluccio and Pangyrus, for this sweet and steamy Valentine.


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