Four dates to get to know me

For two weeks, starting from the 17th of November, we will post four short stories – coming out respectively on Tuesday and on Thursday – taken from the collection of short stories Istantanee – Snapshots, written by Alessia Marinoni. They will be available both in their original version in Italian and in the translated version in English.

A story about insecurity and dating apps

Monday, 8:27 AM

I wake up with a start. I turn to look at the clock that strikes almost half past eight. My instinct tells me to hurry up if I don’t want to be late for work. While I wonder why the alarm on this damn phone never goes off at the right time, I realize that today it actually didn’t need to. I have a headache. Maybe that’s because I slept for too long. Or too little, who knows. These days I haven’t been keeping into account the normal night-day cycle and my circadian rhythm is starting to feel the aftereffects.

I get up from my bed and I sort out my clothes from the night before, which were still piled on my chair. Keeping my house tidy gives me a feeling of security, as if the cause of my ever-recurring thoughts were that one wrinkly shirt. I make coffee and I notice that the few passers-by that I can see from my kitchen window, all carry an umbrella and wear a heavy coat. That makes me smile. I’m wearing just an old t-shirt but I’m not cold. I’m used to much colder temperatures. 

Once I finished my coffee (and washed the cup) a thought gets to me. One that I’ve been trying to shoo away in every possible way: what do I do today? Suddenly, the rain becomes a deterrent and going out is not an option. If the weather had been nicer, I would have gone to the park. Maybe. Or maybe not, I don’t like to go out when the sun is blinding. Or if the wind is blowing. Moreover, clouds put me in a bad mood. So, I better stay in. 

Yes, but how will I get to tonight? I pick up my phone and I see a notification from my brother who’s reminding me to drop by my mom’s place to fix a lightbulb that she’s been refusing to change. My mom lives across the road from me so, if I walk fast enough, I can reach her house without running into any familiar faces. 

Besides my brother’s message, I also find a notification from one of those dating apps I used to use. It’s Giulia. Giulia? Oh yes, now I remember. It’s the girl I was chatting with last night. Actually, It’s the girl my brother and his friends were chatting with using my old profile. My brother, Simone, insisted that I reactivated the dating app profile I used to use some time ago. He says that meeting new people can only cheer me up. Moreover, I’m twenty-six, I still have time to have some fun.

I open up the dating app and my profile embarrasses me. The three pictures I had uploaded don’t look like me anymore and the few lines I wrote about myself give me the idea of a terribly mediocre person. I think about something to add but all of the words that come to my mind are either too pretentious or too predictable. I delete it all and I get back to the chat. Actually, multiple chats are open. It’s five of them.

-One for each day of the week, from today until Friday. You don’t have any other plans, do you?

It’s my brother’s voice trying to convince me that it’s a good idea to plunge into a sea full of sharks while my arm is bleeding. Then why am I listening to him? Maybe just to tell myself that my week will finally have a purpose. Or maybe because, after all, I hope I’ll get to know someone who can understand me. Surely, I’m not looking for a real relationship, I would be stupid if I did. Or wouldn’t I? 

I think about the words to answer Giulia’s message asking me what my favorite songs are. Last night they told her that I’m a musician. Sure, the cliché of the depressed artist who does nothing all day might impress her. It’s a shame I can only strum a few chords (and, even that, with much effort). I try to be vague and I tell her that I like jazz music just to make an impression, but I pray John Coltrane’s spirit that she’s not passionate about the genre. To break this terrible chain of potential misunderstanding, I ask her out. Tonight. That’s brave of me. Maybe the old me is taking over. 

Not very long ago, when I lived in Manchester, I had no problem making the first move if I felt like having a pleasant night out. 

Another notification from Giulia: actually, she’s free tonight. We could drink something downtown?

-Sure we can, – I answer. We agree on a meeting place and time and I suddenly feel afraid again. Maybe I’m not ready to meet someone. She might think that I lied to her and that I’m not the person she was expecting to find. Moreover, it’s been a long time since I last went downtown. Since I last drove. Luckily, it’s only Monday so the city center might not be too packed. And I can always cancel, tell her I’m not feeling well or that suddenly I’m busy. I better go fix my mom’s lightbulb. 

9:00 PM

It’s only one hour until I meet my date and I haven’t decided to call the meeting off just yet. Maybe it’s too late now to back off, Giulia would get mad at me and she would be right. Driven by a sense of guilt more than anything else, I get into the bathroom, I take a shower and I look at myself in the mirror. Underneath all of that messy facial hair I feel like I can still see the boy that’s in my old pictures. I don’t feel like shaving. Moreover, now a messy beard seems to be cool, maybe Giulia will actually believe the tormented artist thing. 

I get dressed and I leave my house. As soon as I set foot outside my front door, the lump in my throat comes back. I try to swallow, but it won’t go away. I get in my car and I leave. I get more and more anxious to get to my destination with every traffic light. I need to repress my instinct telling me to make a turn and go back home. There’s a jazz song on the radio that I don’t know. Or that might be blues, I only know that I can hear the sound of a saxophone. That’s how much knowledge I have in the field. 

I turn off the radio so as not to be overpowered by panic. I park my car and I get off. I’m almost in front of the bar where we had arranged the meeting when I feel my phone vibrate in the pocket of my jeans. It’s Giulia, she’s already here. I think I see her in the distance and, as I get closer, I feel heavy weight drop on me because I can see her staring at me. I smile at her hoping that I haven’t mistaken her for someone else. She smiles back. I don’t know how she recognized me so quickly when I cannot recognize myself looking at those old pictures. But I don’t have time to wonder: in a heartbeat we introduce ourselves to each other and we sit at the bar, waiting to order something. I go for a coke and she wants a glass of red wine. Maybe I should have copied her move, now she must think I’m an idiot. I need to think about an excuse, quickly.

-I have to start working early tomorrow, you know.

That’s a lie. She asks me what I studied and from then on, we start asking each other all the average questions one would ask on a first date. How old are you? What are you studying? What do you do in your free time? What’s your favorite film? We carry on the conversations smoothly. Maybe a little too smoothly. I find out that she’s a little younger than me, she’s attending her third year of university and she’s studying to become a nurse, she’s passed almost all of her exams and she’s probably going to graduate soon. In her free time, she plays tennis and she says she likes to travel. That’s silly, who doesn’t? She tells me that she’s just visited Barcelona with her friends, and she thought that the view from the Park Güell terrace was breathtaking. The fact that she speaks a lot reassures me because I would be embarrassed if I had to come up with lies about myself so as not to tell her, in a couple words, about what my life has come to lately. I don’t talk much about myself: I tell her about my life abroad, about my degree in economics, about my business trips. I tell her about the person I used to be and, even if I’m technically not telling lies, I feel guilty because I’m hiding my abyss from her, I’m acting as if I were a different person. 

I make an effort to keep following her small talk pattern and, surprisingly, I can do that quite well. She seems like she’s at ease even if I have the feeling that her biggest interest is telling me as much as she can about herself and smiling knowing that I’m listening to her. Time flies by and, at about midnight, I find an excuse to go back home telling her, once more, that I need to wake up early the following day. She doesn’t look surprised. I feel like everything I say just passes right through her. Outside the bar we both agree that it was a pleasant night out but we don’t talk about a second date. I act like a gentleman and walk with her to her car and, after one last friendly goodbye, I run towards mine, sure that I’d find a more welcoming space in there compared to the inside of the bar. While I’m driving, I realize that neither of us had the guts to say absolutely anything relevant about themselves but it all becomes a little less important when I think about the fact that Giulia’s stories were able to distract me from my thoughts and to keep me away from that overwhelming routine that I created for myself. Maybe my brother is right: a little light conversation can only be good for me. 

Tuesday, 10:15 AM

I wake up but I’m still tired. I make my usual coffee and I watch the news on tv. I always tend to get a little sad while watching the newscast: it’s always bad news and it only makes me want to stay home more and more. Not today, though. Those negative words coming out of the journalist’s mouth don’t seem to get to me today. I feel like my life took the right turn. I decide that I’m going to shave this morning, the next girl I will date is going to appreciate it.

I open up my dating app and Giulia left no trace. Maybe last night wasn’t so good a night, but oh well. Anyways, what could I tell her? “Sorry but this week I don’t have time for you because I’ve got plenty of dates with new girls”? Maybe she would have thought that I’m crazy or worse, that I have nothing better to do than to harass girls online. 

I think I better organize some more dates, not all the girls I talk to will be available right away. I talk to a few different girls, trying to seem interested in the conversation while the truth is, all caught up in my euphoria, I’m only trying to understand who could be available for a night out. A girl catches my eye. From her pictures, she looks like she has a friendly face and, while we’re talking, I find out that she’s passionate about movies. I think I am too but my certainties sway when, while she tells me about her favorite directors, I can’t find a single familiar name in the list. I ask her if she would have time for a coffee. She hesitates because she says she needs to go to university today. But then, she says she’s got some time between one lesson and the other, so I suggest we meet close to the university and she accepts my offer. I let her choose the place telling her I don’t know much about that area, so that I can tell her right away about my studies abroad. 

In the meantime, I try to set up some more dates for the following days. I talk to Amy. I am fascinated by her foreign name and, indeed, after a hesitant “ciao”, the conversation continues in English. She seems surprised that I speak her language so well and, without me having to make too much of an effort, she asks me to meet the following night. Of course, I say yes right away, which seems to make her laugh a little. Maybe I should be a little bit more reserved, but I don’t have time to play these games. 

While I’m looking for the right words to say to hit on another girl, I take my eyes away from the phone for a second and I look at my trusty alarm clock next to my bed: it’s already 2 P.M. and my stomach hasn’t asked for food yet. This whole revolution thing left me with no hunger. I get into the shower, I need to be fast, I have a date with…what was her name? Well, the girl at the café. 

3:26 PM

While the moment to go out gets closer, I feel more and more insecure. How could I forget all of the problems that keep me anchored to this house? Why didn’t I think about Giulia’s refusal this morning? She may not be the right person for me but if she didn’t want me, without me showing her the person I really am, then who would? Maybe I should keep on lying, I’m not ready to show the real me. But if I don’t, I feel like a coward. 

It’s almost time to go. I thought I could get to the café using the bus because, after all, it’s only a few stops away from where I live. But now the idea of being trapped inside a metal box on wheels full of people makes me shiver. I better take my car to avoid getting there all sweaty and with my heart pounding in my chest. I get in the car and I am happy to notice that, at this time of the day, the roads are pretty empty. Sure, it’s too late to go to work and too early to go back home. Thinking about work throws me into a vortex of negative thoughts that I try to turn off by turning on the radio. A song from Florence and The Machine is on. Not my favorite, but at least it’s not a jazz song this time. In just a few minutes, I get in the area of out meeting and, surprisingly, I find a parking spot right away. I let my phone guide me to the bar that the girl chose. I walk slowly, it’s still early and she surely won’t be here yet. I’m just a few steps away, I make a turn and I see a figure hunched on top of a huge-looking book, she’s sitting at a wrought-iron table in the dehors of the café. The more I get closer, the more I seem to recognize her face. Is she already here? Why can’t I, for once, have the privilege to arrive first? At least she isn’t staring at me. If she doesn’t notice me, I will have to call her by her name. Wait, what was her name? Alice? Or Claudia? I have no time to check. She turns towards me.

-Hey, hi, you’re early! – She seems pleasantly surprised. -I’m normally the first one to arrive when I have to meet someone, so I’m used to waiting. Anyways, I’m Lucrezia, – That was easier than I thought. Luckily. 

We get ourselves some coffee and she tells me that, unfortunately, she won’t be able to stay with me for long because soon she will have to attend a lesson. She studies modern literature and she’s fascinated by everything concerning the publishing industry. She seems like an interesting type. I explain to her that my academic choices took me far away from humanistic studies for a pretty long time. She looks a little irritated. She starts making a list of authors I never heard of and I start feeling as if I were still in high school, when the Latin professor asked me to conjugate a verb. She doesn’t seem to notice my embarrassment and I have a feeling her stare is getting more and more annoyed. The expression on her face gives me a feeling of uneasiness and I start to think about a plausible excuse to leave. In order to make things better, I start asking more questions about herself such as what areas of the city she normally hangs out at, if she ever had any pets and so on, just to test the waters. She answers cordially but there’s something in her voice that tells me that she finds all of my questions extremely insignificant and irrelevant. I try to tell her about myself even though her self-confidence stops the words in my throat and I feel like my uneasiness must be absolutely clear now. I cannot put myself out there much, just like I couldn’t when I was with Giulia. Actually, this time I can’t do that at all. I’m afraid to be judged too harshly. Maybe I’m exaggerating, I shouldn’t let a few questions knock me down so much. Moreover, I really find her attractive and the fact that she knows things I don’t know makes her look even more interesting. 

She asks me what my favorite Monicelli movie is. I don’t know, I must have seen just one of them. While I mumble an answer trying to recall the name of the movie I saw, I see her looking at her wrist. It’s late, she says. She’d better get back to her lessons, she’s sorry she has to interrupt the conversation. I doubt it but I’m really sorry that she’s leaving like this. I feel like I couldn’t tell her much at all about myself, even less than I did with Giulia. While I’m lost in thought, I see the barista coming with the bill. I pay without thinking and I go back home. 

09:15 PM

I’ve been lying on my bed for a while now. I’ve yet to do something at all since I came back home. I keep thinking about the thousand ways the date could have been better, the thousand ways she humiliated me. I knew that I wasn’t ready for something like this. I’ve never been good at relationships. How could I expect to impress her? I can’t ever interest myself with all of the problems that come back to haunt me every day. I tell myself that it’s not my fault, but I can’t help thinking it is. Who did I think I was? I left a steady job just because I was feeling guilty, hanging on to my morals. What was I expecting? That everybody would have cheered me, ready to offer me a new job and a badge of honor? Moreover, coming back home just proved that I was a failure. I was dreaming of a life abroad and now I feel trapped in this city that doesn’t belong to me anymore. There’s no place I can think of as my home. England was the stage where my errors were consumed and Italy went back to being my safe place, but the only thing I want is to run away. I can’t stop these thoughts and my head spins in circles, once more, pushing me deeper down. My mother says that I’m just feeling a bit lonely, then why can’t I feel appreciated when I’m surrounded by people? I can never get other people’s love, just their compassion. As if this damn anxiety were a social weight that I will never be able to free myself from. Because we don’t talk about this type of things. If I could tell other people what goes through my head, in the best-case scenario they would tell me that it’s just a rough time of my life, it will pass. And in the worst? Maybe they’d think I’m crazy. And who wants to deal with someone like that?

It’s past ten PM. I haven’t eaten yet, but I think my stomach won’t accept any food tonight. I put on a movie hoping to be able to distract myself, at least up until the moment I will fall asleep. No Monicelli for me tonight, the moment to become a better person has yet to come. 

Wednesday, 7:45 AM

Once again, my alarm doesn’t go off. But I have no doubts this morning: there’s no impatient boss waiting for me to walk into the office. I wasn’t able to sleep for almost the whole night, so I better get up and have breakfast, my stomach is starting to growl. I make myself some toasted bread, I turn on the tv (trying to carefully avoid running into the news) and I start listening to a starred chef trying to explain to me how to cook the perfect beef Wellington. If he could hear me, I’d tell him that my best friend in the kitchen is the microwave but he’s standing there, all dressed in white, and he doesn’t seem to accept any comment from his scholars. He only wants to show his public his decade-long expertise, skillfully (and boastfully) handling knives and pans. 

My phone rings: it’s my mother who wants to invite me over for dinner. Today, at midday. My brother will be there too. He will come over during his lunch break. I’m not very keen on listening to my brothers many questions and, mostly, I don’t want to talk about this situation. But I can’t let mom down. Moreover, it’s not like I would have any excuse to give her. I tell her I’ll be there and I hang up the phone. 

I haven’t looked at my phone since yesterday afternoon. I see a few notifications on the screen. Some of the messages are written in English and others are written in Italian. Glancing at the messages, I notice that some of them are from Lucrezia. I think before answering and, in the end, I opt for the English ones. I would like to avoid thinking about what happened yesterday. Moreover, I want to feel like I’m far away from home, even if I don’t have the courage to get away from here. 

It’s Amy, the foreign girl I had a date with tonight. I didn’t remember setting that up and now, reading yesterday’s messages, I feel a little dizzy. There’s no more trace of that frenzy I was in yesterday. I answer saying I’m sorry for having disappeared for a whole day ad I say that it was because of a sudden mishap. No answer from her. She might be busy. Anyways, I don’t think I’m going out tonight. Her answer wouldn’t make any difference. 

12:30 PM

I’m in perfect timing for lunch, even though I lost my appetite thinking about my brother’s interrogation. 

Just like the other day, while exiting my place, I try to avoid making eye contact with other passers-by. I don’t want to tell strangers about my business just because we’re neighbors. 

I’m in front of my mom’s place. She opens the door for me and greets me with a hug. My brother isn’t here yet, maybe he’s stuck in traffic. We sit in the kitchen, waiting for him to arrive. There’s a cooking show on tv. Since when did they become so popular? While we’re talking, mom gives me a report in exhaustive detail on how to cook all the different meals we’re going to eat later. “So that you know what to cook if someone comes over to your place”. I’d like to tell her that it’s been months since someone last set foot into my place but, like the starred chef from earlier, she doesn’t seem to accept objections.  

While she’s talking, I can’t help but think about Amy. Why isn’t she answering? True, I don’t feel like going out, but I would like to be the one politely declining her invitation. But I can’t do that because she won’t answer. My frail self-esteem wouldn’t be able to take another rejection. I look down to see my phone but there’s nothing new on the screen. While I look up again, I realize that my mom has stopped talking and she’s looking at me with a worried face. She says that I’m elusive, that she’s worried for me, she knows I never leave my house and that I’m constantly in there tormenting myself. While she’s speaking, she starts crying and seeing her like that breaks my heart. Words flow out of her mouth like rivers. It looks like she kept them in there for too long. She says that she missed me while I was away, but she misses me more now that I’m here. She’s afraid that I’m not doing enough to try and get back on my feet. She’s trying to justify my errors saying that everybody makes mistakes, but she says that I have to find a solution. Now she looks mad, she’s talking about a job, a family, a steady life. Suddenly she stops. She dries her tears and she tells me that I have to do something to get out of this vicious circle. It’s imperative but, from the tone of her voice, it sounds like a pleading. Without noticing, I start crying too, I hug her and I promise that I will do as she says. 

The doorbell rings, interrupting this pitiful family reunion. It’s my brother who comes in with a smile even though he seems to notice the heavy atmosphere right away. Maybe this is why he doesn’t ask me any questions. Actually, he tries to avoid talking to me altogether during the whole lunch. I know him too well; I know he’s a pacifist and he doesn’t want to break the delicate balance that we created by making inappropriate questions. But I also know that he would like to ask me for the umpteenth time why I’m acting like this. He’s always been the most carefree between us two. Problems are just challenges to him and, in most cases, he can overcome them pretty well. It looks like nothing can scratch his positivity. Sure, he also has his bad times, but he doesn’t stop to think about it too much. Once they’re past, they’re past. This is why we never understood each other, and this is why I know he’s not the right person to talk to about my feelings. He would take everything too lightly. Moreover, I love him too much to weigh him down with my problems and he loves me too much to risk hurting me with the wrong words. 

Lunch ends pretty soon; my brother needs to go back to work. He kisses my mom goodbye and he hugs me. I take him to the door. While we’re alone, he reminds me of our little secret, smiling. I know it’s just a way to distract me. His comment reminds me of Amy. I’d forgotten about her in this vortex of feelings. I check my phone and…she answered! I help mom clean the dishes and I run back home. I read Amy’s message: she’s apologizing for having answered after a long time, but she says she’s just woken up. Last night (or, rather, this morning) she got home very late, she was drunk and she slept tightly. She sure likes to have fun. I’m still in two minds about our date. Just a few hours ago, I was convinced to leave this dating app thing alone. But then my mother’s tears and my brother’s stare. After all, the first night wasn’t so bad, I was able to distract myself from my problems. Maybe I should take this as some kind of therapy, something to push me to get out of my comfort zone, something to challenge myself. It might not be so obvious that I will lose this challenge. I take a deep breath and I ask her to confirm our date tonight. After just a few minutes she answers that she will be there. We arrange to meet in front of a wine bar, which is normally pretty crowded. She’s the one who chooses the place, she says she saw it while passing by a couple night ago. It looked like something she wanted to try while she’s here in Italy. Wine has the power to make the person drinking it appear more charming and foreigners love that. What better place than a wine bar to experience the Italian nightlife at its best? I accept. It’s going to be another challenge for me to be in such a crowded place. But I need to prove myself that I can do it. 

I also notice another girl’s message, Cecilia. We’ve been speaking for a few days now. She was one of the girls to whom my brother and his friends reached out the night in which this “experiment” began. Last night, while being very discouraged, I confessed to her that this period of my life was really putting me to the test for a few different reasons. Reading her answer now, it seems to me that she understands what I’m talking about. She says “stressful times” are more common than one may think and there’s no reason to be ashamed of it. Sure, I already heard these words. Then why do they seem so new to me? So true?

These days, I was all caught up in my emotions, I never really gave too much importance to anyone in particular. Now I realize that I didn’t think about any of the girls I went out with. I mostly thought about how I felt when I was with them. I don’t know why, but I feel comfortable talking to Cecilia. I like her. Even though it normally takes a while for her to answer my messages, I feel like her words are sweet. Maybe it’s just one of my coping mechanisms that’s letting me think that her kindness is, instead, compassion. But there’s something about her that I can’t quite put my fingers on, and, for the first time, I would really love to put myself out there. I had already asked her out once, on Tuesday, but she had refused because she had other unspecified plans and I had forgotten about it. I was too busy listening to other stories in that moment to be able to worry about a date that I’d missed. I gather my courage and I ask her out once more. It takes a few minutes, then half an hour, almost one hour and I keep feeling my heart pounding in my chest. I’d rather not start this night with another rejection. It’s almost nighttime, I’d have to cook something for dinner but, once again, I’m not hungry. This time, at least, I can blame it on the big lunch I had at my mother’s. An answer, finally! She would like to meet me tomorrow night. Perfect, I couldn’t receive better news. I quickly cook a carbonara while I think about a way to impress her. 

09:40 PM

After dinner, I suggest one of the poshest places in town, for me and Cecilia to meet. I also offer to go pick her up. That’s how it’s done, right? She says there’s no need to do that and that she would prefer somewhere quieter. That’s it, another mistake. I suggest a place that I know well. I used to go there often a few years ago, it’s a pub, a very informal and welcoming place. I wonder why I didn’t think about it sooner. It’s clear that she’s not the type for champagne and caviar. We set the time of the meeting and I quickly start getting ready for the night. I try to look as presentable as possible and I set off. I’m in the car and I push on the gas. I’m excited for my date with Cecilia, I’d want time to pass by faster to get to tomorrow night sooner. How long it’s been since the last time I felt like this? Maybe too long. I try to restrain my emotions, after all it’s just a conversation we’ve had. 

I get in the area of our meeting pretty quickly and, this time, there’s no parking space in sight. I feel anxious, I don’t like being late. I try to find a parking spot for about twenty minutes but the only thing I can find is a private garage on payment. I’m in a hurry. I get in, ask about their pricing and about their closing time. The guy in the entrance tells me that I need to come back get my car before two o’clock. Not a minute later than that, no exceptions. He gives me a brochure with the prices varying according to the time of the day. It looks more like a menu from a fancy restaurant. I have no alternative, so I leave the keys on my car dashboard and I look at it while it disappears, with the guy from earlier, at the end of a dark alley. 

I walk quickly to save a little time but, looking at my watch, I notice I’m on time. Moreover, I notice a message from Amy saying that she will be a little late, just a few minutes. It doesn’t matter, I will have time to adjust to the atmosphere outside the wine bar. 

While I’m heading towards the bar, I see in the distance a face I recognize. Can she already be here? Getting closer, I notice that it’s actually not Amy. It’s an old friend of mine, from my high school. I hadn’t seen her in ages. We used to hang out together a lot, with the other guys from my old school. Then someone, like me, left Italy or moved to a different city and we didn’t keep in touch. She seems to notice me but she looks uncertain. I don’t feel like remembering the good old times tonight, but I don’t know how to escape from her stare. Without me wanting it, I find myself staring back at her and smiling. All of a sudden, she seems to recall my face and she walks towards me. We say hello, smiling, and we agree that it’s been too long since the last time we met. We talk for a while about our old friends, with whom she seems to have kept in touch. I hear a bitter note in her voice while she tells me that I disappeared since I left the country. Actually, I have to admit, I haven’t been a very good friend. While I was busy meeting new people and making new experiences, I completely forgot about my old friends and, when I realized that, I didn’t have the courage to undo what I’d just done. But I didn’t think that I’d be the only one not keeping in touch, and I feel a little saddened by her silent reproach. She says I look different, but she doesn’t specify in what way. This walk down memory lane was not what I needed tonight. Maybe she means that she can tell I’m hiding something from her? Or maybe that I have stopped taking care of myself? Maybe Amy will think that I’m too scruffy for her. I should have ironed the shirt I’m wearing. My old friend asks me what I’m doing now, if I’m working. I try to avoid the question, with poor results. She understands that I don’t want to talk about it and she changes the subject of the conversation. She was always the empathic type and I appreciate her move but, at the same time, I feel a little embarrassed because I know that she understood. She asks me if I’m waiting for someone and I say yes, it’s the first date with a girl I met on a dating app. Maybe she will think that I’m a loser who doesn’t know how to act with girls in the real world but, at least on this topic, I owed her some sincerity. We make a few last comments about the past and then we part, after she makes me promise that I’d get in touch with the others too. I don’t know if I can keep this promise, I can take on only one challenge at a time. But I still think it’s worth giving it a try. 

It’s a quarter to eleven and there’s still no trace of Amy. I’m starting to think that she won’t show up when, in the distance, I see her coming. She looks very elegant; she’s wearing a black dress and some very high heels. She’s beautiful, even though her steady step makes me falter a little. We start with the usual formalities: we introduce ourselves; we get into the bar and grab something to drink. I offer to pay for both of us. At first, she refuses feebly but then she accepts  and thanks me. We sit at a table and start talking. She seems bubbly and full of life. The opposite of myself. Strangely, though, she can put me at ease. Maybe that’s because she’s from the outskirts of Manchester. It’s strange hearing someone with that accent here, in my city. She says she’ll be in Italy just a few more days. She’s here to visit one of her friends who’s an Erasmus student here. She’s already been all around the city and she knows a few nightclubs where she passed the last few nights. She felt like doing something different tonight, something quieter. She winks while saying that, which makes me think that the night might take a different turn that I’d expected. I feel flattered and troubled at the same time. I haven’t had a night like that in a while now and I feel kind of rusty. The night passes by very quickly while we tell each other about our time in Manchester and we drink more than a few glasses of wine. Before I know, it’s midnight. Then one in the morning. Then two. My head is spinning, maybe I drank too much, but I feel like I’m less inhibited and I like the fact that she laughs at my poor jokes even though it might be because of the alcohol. When I remember about my car, it’s too late. I don’t have time to worry about it because she gets closer and kisses me. I’m taken aback, I don’t even know if I can kiss anymore. She seems like she doesn’t notice, and she asks me if I can take her to her rented apartment, it’s just a few minutes away. I walk with her to the apartment; she asks me to stay with her, and I say yes without thinking. I understand the situation only when, sitting on her bed, I look around the room. It’s like her luggage, at the foot of the bed, exploded, sending clothes flying all over the room. She sure isn’t very tidy. I have to restrain myself from getting up and cleaning everything like I do at my place. Maybe that would clear my thoughts a little. I would do anything rather than staying here with a blank face. I want to go home but it’s too late now to go get my car. She comes closer and, smiling, she says I’m a strange guy. I don’t know why I can’t take this as a compliment. Seeing that I’m still immobilized she asks me if there’s something wrong. Maybe I don’t like her enough? I try to justify myself saying that I do like her a lot and I try to find other excuses but the only thing I can come up with is that I don’t feel ready to continue the night. She looks weirded out and a little disappointed. Something’s telling me that she took it very personally. Her stare makes me feel guilty, as if I’d just played with her. Moreover, I feel like a coward. It’s a low blow for my self-esteem. 

After having understood that the night was over, Amy sat on the bed and lay down. She says I can still sleep at her place, if I want to. I must have told her about the car thing before. Not only is she going to think that I’m a “strange guy”, to use an understatement, but she’s also going to think that I’m exploiting her to get some hospitality. I’m too tired to find an alternative solution. I lay down as well and close my eyes. My head is still spinning but, luckily, sleep takes over soon. 

Thursday, 09:24 AM

I open up my eyes and it takes me a few seconds to realize where I am. Amy is still sleeping next to me. I’m still tired but the only thing I want is to go back home. My head isn’t spinning anymore but, on the other hand, it’s like someone put a jackhammer right in it. I’m still wearing the clothes from last night; I’m only missing my shoes. I find them on the floor, covered by stacks of feminine clothes. Maybe I should go away without her knowing? Or would it be better to wake her up not to look like a complete coward? I opt for the second option. She quickly says goodbye in a sleepy voice and she tells me to close the door, the keys are on the living room table. After that, she turns the other way and she keeps on sleeping. I follow her instructions, I close the door, go down the stairs and I can finally breathe a sigh of relief. My only thought is getting into my own bed even though, before doing that, I have to face the garage guy who will probably empty my wallet. 

03:18 PM

I just finished eating and I’m trying in every possible way not to think about what happened yesterday. I promise myself that I will never again put myself in such a situation and I swear that I will never again open up that damn dating app. But first, I need to finish what I started. Tonight, I have a date with Cecilia. Moreover, I still remember all Lucrezia’s messages, which I left unread. I don’t want to be the type of person that, after a not-so-good date, disappears. 

No messages from Cecilia. Actually, there’s not much to say, the conversation ended with us making plans on the place and time of our meeting. 

So, the time has come for me to open up Lucrezia’s conversation. There’s a couple of unread messages and they’re pretty long ones. I’m curious. She says that she’s sorry for running away like that the other day, sometimes she feels the urge to hurry when she’s embarrassed. Moreover, she knows that she doesn’t seem very friendly in the beginning and she says she knows that she didn’t put me at ease and, while trying to make it better, she accidentally made things worse. She would like to make up for it, she liked spending time with me, even though she knows that she wasn’t able to show me. She seems really mortified and, looking at the time the messages were sent, I notice that she wrote them the night after we met. She also says that, not realizing it, she left without paying. She’s not the type to do such things. She would like to pay me back by offering me a coffee one of these days. Assuming I can forgive her for her nasty remarks, of course. Can I? After all, her apology seems sincere, but I don’t know if I feel like doing it all again. I answer telling her that I’m sorry for not answering her messages for days. I tell her that I may have time for a coffee on Friday, in the afternoon, but I leave some space for future confirmation. I’m not convinced I want to do it. I was fascinated by her in the beginning but, right now, her attitude may be too much for me. But what if she acted that way just because she was nervous? It’s possible, but I don’t know if I want to find out. The conversation ends with a few brief and direct answers: she says she’s free the next afternoon and I promise her I will let her know if I’ll be there as soon as possible. 

The end of this conversation leaves me alone with myself, once more. I feel like, now that I know I can still spend a night out with someone, it’s time to slow things down a little. Tonight, I don’t want to impress anybody, I don’t want to exaggerate. And I surely don’t want to let Cecilia think that I’m a different person from what I really am. Tonight, I want to leave all the pressure of appearing like a better person behind and I only want to tell her about myself. 

09:05 PM

In a few minutes, I’m ready to go out. For the first time I’m not insecure about what I want to wear or about my looks. The car ride goes by quickly, I know the road by heart, I’ve driven on it an infinite number of times and, even though it’s been a while since I last did it, my memory still won’t betray me. I get to the front of the pub. For once, I don’t care if I’m the first one to arrive or not. I don’t even look at my watch or at my phone. I have to wait just few minutes before she arrives. I see her coming towards me and she’s exactly the way I had pictured her. It’s like nothing’s out of place. We sit at a table, we order two beers, and, after the initial embarrassment, we start talking. The conversation flows, it’s easy talking to her. I like the fact that she smiles shyly. For the first time, I’m the one carrying the conversation even though she’s holding the reins and she’s the one leading it and giving it direction. With no resistance from her or my side, I find myself speaking once more about my past life but, this time, it’s different. Words seem to flow out of my mouth on their own, with no inhibition. She’s the one who asks me about my “stressful time” like we called it. It’s oddly easy for me to talk about it now. I tell her that, after high school I decided to begin something new. I was young and I was afraid, but I needed to do something that could, one way or another, change my life. And change my life it did. I built myself a life abroad, I settled down in a country that wasn’t mine. Sometimes I missed my family, my past habits and, sometimes, nostalgia took over. But all that didn’t last long, I just had to make myself an espresso with the coffee maker my brother had given me before leaving in order to be ready to take on another exam or get to know new people. My life went on like this for a few years, between the planes that took me back to my country and those that took me to the place I then called home. I graduated and found a job right away. I felt like nobody could stop me and I surely had no intention to slow down. It was easy for me in the beginning. I liked learning new things and, moreover, the job I had gave me the opportunity to travel a lot. I learned quickly and, in the first few months of work, I received a few promotions. Nevertheless, sometimes I felt a little overwhelmed my something bigger than me. I felt part of a system in which I didn’t belong. I tried not to think about it and to go on. But every week that passed, brought more bad news. My boss often sent me to new places. I was good at doing what I did and my colleagues, who had been working in the field for far more years than I had, started to get upset because of all the signs of approval I got and they didn’t get. They seemed so nice to me in the beginning. With time, I started realizing that, many between them, would have gone out of their way to make me fall, as if they wanted to put me back in my place, as if I had something I didn’t deserve. They were all very competitive in there, both my colleagues and the boss, who was only trying to exploit my potential. What really mattered to him was that I brought him results that could make our firm competitive on the market. A few of my colleagues, laughing, said to me that it was a cruel world and that I had to learn how to play that game. Little by little, my boss started asking me to lie to clients more and more often. I began telling little white lies and nobody seemed to notice. My partners, those who travelled with me, never had any problem lying, it was actually as if they competed with each other to find out who could fool the most clients. Without getting caught, of course. My boss himself asked me to do so. Sometimes, I protested. But I knew that I couldn’t push it too much. Many of the comments I heard from my colleagues, implied that I wasn’t worth much and that there were a whole lot of young people like me who were more than ready to take my place. As time went on, the situation got even worse. Even when I was at home, I couldn’t take my mind off from what I had to do at work. I kept thinking about the meetings I had to attend, and I felt helpless and a coward because I didn’t have the courage to do something to change the situation. Moreover, I felt terribly guilty for agreeing to something that wasn’t against my every moral principle. My self-esteem was almost nonexistent, and a sense of guilt and oppression became my companions during many sleepless nights. From then on, panic attacks began. I tried to hide them from my colleagues and my clients. One day, I finally decided that it wasn’t worth it anymore. I was told to lie once more but I decided not to get on the plane that would have taken me to the meeting with my client, knowing that I would have had to face consequences for it. Once I was back in the office, all it took was my signature on a sheet of paper and I could finally breathe a sigh of relief. But my problems didn’t end there. I had a hard time trying to find a new job that could mirror my academic choices. My sense of guilt wouldn’t leave me. Neither did the feeling of being worthless. I had fallen into a spiral of negativity that, to this day, won’t leave me alone. The decision of coming back home wasn’t easy either. I had taken it as a personal failure, as if my happiness only depended on a geographic location. I terribly missed my family, and, for this reason, I decided to come back. I needed some friendly faces around me, I needed to get back to the routine I had hated while I was a teen, but that I so missed now that I didn’t have it anymore. It broke my heart having to see my mother grow old from far away. When my brother got his degree, I could only see him wearing his laurel wreath in pictures because my busy schedule kept me away from home. He had forgiven me, but I couldn’t forgive myself. Had I known since the beginning how things would have ended up, I would have taken the decision to miss that plane right away so that I could be there when the commission called my brother’s name. I tell her that there’s still many things I want to fix in my life right now. But I’m trying. Slowly, I’m trying.

-You know, it’s not easy for me to go out in public, being in a crowded street. But tonight I’m here, and I surely don’t regret it.

She smiles and she doesn’t seem shocked by the river of words that I poured onto her. She looks at me and tells me that she understands and, for the first time, I have no doubts. She really does. She says that it’s happened to her in the past to feel this way. Crushed and helpless. She couldn’t recognize herself anymore. She says she knows it’s hard. But she also says that I need to have trust, that anxiety and depression, or those “stressful times” as we call them so that they’re less scary, are monsters that visit many people, many more than we think. To try and defeat them, the first step to take is that of talking about our feelings, not being afraid to admit to the others and to ourselves that there’s a concrete problem ahead of us. I’m shocked. More than by her words, I’m shocked by the simplicity with which she talks about topics that have been oppressing me for months. Every word I tried to speak concerning them, seemed like a heavy weight. But now I’m looking at her while she’s just effortlessly putting all those words in a line. I think she understood perfectly what I need. While I listen to her, I feel like I was freed from a huge weight. She tells me that everything will go back to being the way it was, eventually. I need to trust her. And trust her, I do. While we exit the pub, I tell her everything that’s going through my head: she was a gust of fresh air in my life, which had been standing still for too long. I would like to see her again. She looks a little saddened while she tells me that she knows what it feels like to lean on someone who seems to understand us. But she doesn’t want me to think about a relationship. She kindly tells me that maybe I’m not what she’s looking for. But if I need to chat with someone, I know where to find her. She’s smiling at me, but it looks like she’s struggling to say these words, I can tell that she’s afraid to hurt me. But I lift any responsibility from her. We say goodbye and, while I drive back home, I think that maybe I only needed someone with whom I didn’t need to act as if I were someone else, a better person. Someone with whom my flaws and my problems could just be flaws and problems and wouldn’t become black holes. I look for my house keys and I breathe a sigh of relief. I surely will have something to tell my brother. 

My name is Alessia, I was born on a summer morning twenty-five years ago in a little town near Milan and I’m a linguistic mediation student. A few years ago, the city of Bologna became my second home because that’s where I’ve been studying. Living away from home gave me the opportunity to make new experiences such as sharing a house with five other students my age and dedicating myself to the activities I love: writing and translating. I like to listen to what other people want to share and I like pondering all the different little details of words which change according to the context in which they’re used, even on a cultural level. That’s why, in the near future, I would like to mix my listening skills with my translation and writing skills as much as possible in order to make it my job.

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