Dusty Rome, in mid August. Thirty-eight degrees and nowhere to hide from the relentless sun. The shadows have shrunk back to hug the buildings. We lean against the warm wall of our hotel, trying to decide where to go. We are both nursing dry-mouthed hangovers and the heat feels like a living thing, a swarm. It surrounds us, pressing in. The streets are mostly deserted but for men on scooters who buzz past, loud and threatening like wasps.
"Lunch first?" he suggests. I nod.
This is romance, I tell myself. I am in Rome (where the word was invented) with this man who is...well, at this point I’m not sure exactly who he is. Sweat pools at the base of my spine and trickles down my legs.
Earlier I’d sat on our bed and watched him try on shirts. "Why did you bring so many shirts?" I asked. "Packed quickly," he replied, trying on another. I hadn’t brought much – two dresses, a pair of shorts, a few T-shirts. He’d hung six shirts in the wardrobe the night before (checked, plain, florals). This morning I spotted more in his bag.
"We’re only here for six days," I said. He looked at me in the mirror and shrugged before trying on another.
I felt, for a second, unmoored. Why was I here? Then I remembered: romance.
We’d met two weeks before at the wedding of mutual friends in the rolling Italian countryside. I was newly single and had just quit my full-time job to go freelance. For the first time in my adult life, I had no one to answer to. We chatted, then went back to my room. By the time I threw him out at 6am, we’d covered the basics (where we grew up, what we did, hobbies) and we’d had sex.
"James is nice, isn’t he?" I said to my friend when I woke up. "I think his name is Sam," she corrected. Later that day, he offered my friends and I a lift to the airport.
What better way to exploit my newfound freedom than spending six days in a European city with a man whose name I wasn’t sure of six hours earlier?
On that journey our plan was hatched: we’d come back in a week, he’d show me Rome. "I love Rome...it’ll be really fun," he said. And what better way to exploit my newfound freedom than spending six days in a European city with a man whose name I wasn’t sure of six hours earlier?
We both took it at face value that a holiday with a relative stranger would, at worst, make for a hilarious story in years to come. It made sense in a way. If apps have boiled down the complex business of dating to four flattering photos and a two-line bio, why can’t intimacy be fast-tracked by a spontaneous week in a foreign country?
It took about 13 hours for us to realize that we might, actually, hate each other. (Which I guess is intimate in a way; it takes many couples years to reach this point.)
The Cambridge English dictionary defines spontaneity as "the quality of being natural rather than planned in advance"; sitting on the bed that morning I thought about how this holiday felt unplanned but also, somehow, unnatural.
On the street we start walking to somewhere. Neither of us is sure where, exactly, just that when we see what we’re looking for, we’ll know. He slips his hand into mine, intertwining our fingers. I allow the gesture to stand but it feels awkward.
At worst, a holiday with a relative stranger would make for a hilarious story in years to come.
Do you hold hands with someone you barely know? I can tell that he feels awkward too but we go on. A trickle of sweat runs down my arm, over my wrist and between our two palms. They squelch together for a few more seconds before I silently take my hand back.
We find a place to eat and eat pasta, because it is Rome. We order wine and by 3pm are drunk again. We talk about our lives and relationships. He says I’m arrogant. I say it’s no wonder he’s been single for five years.
Back into the heat we amble between the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Galleria Borghese. Rome is beautiful and exhausting; by early evening the wine buzz has worn off and I cannot be bothered to make more conversation. He suggests another landmark, I sit down heavily on a bench and roll my eyes.
"I’ve seen Rome before, you know," he says. "I feel like I’m dragging a moody teenager around. I really didn’t think I’d meet someone who was even lazier than I am."
"Asshole," I mutter under my breath.
The last time he was here, it turns out, was with his ex-girlfriend. He brought her for Valentine’s Day. When we go to see the Vatican he takes his camera out and moves me into a specific spot so that he can recreate a photo he has of the two of them, with me in her place. "It’s funny," he says.
"It’s really weird…" I move away. He often makes jokes that aren’t actually funny.
I roll my eyes again and again until finally I say: "Why does everything have to be some weird 'banter'?"
"Sorry," he replies. "I’ve gotten too used to lads' holidays…I’ll try to be less of a dick."
That night, we eat more pasta and drink more wine. We talk about our families and why we do what we do. He’s not so bad, I decide. After dinner I skip drunkenly through quiet streets and the strap on my sandal breaks. I take the shoe off and hurl it away.
"Are you just going to walk around barefoot?" he asks, wrinkling his nose in distaste.
"Not fully barefoot – I’ve got one shoe on."
On the way back to the hotel, we stop in a cocktail bar. The walls are painted red and the people inside look at us, two drunk Brits (one wearing an overly elaborate shirt, another missing a shoe), with stylish Italian disdain.
All the other tourists seem to be on honeymoon. We haven't even been dating long enough to be in our honeymoon phase, let alone on an actual honeymoon.
After espresso martinis (he calls it 'expresso') and negronis and Aperol and negronis and shots, we go back. In the night I wake up feeling existential. It is dark and above the quiet whoosh of the air conditioner I hear him breathing next to me. It feels, I think to myself, deeply intimate to listen to this relative stranger sleep.
"Sam…" I say, into the darkness, "Wake up…" I prod him.
"You’re breathing too loudly."
"Erm...sorry," he says, turning away from my sharp elbow.
The next morning we decide to do what real Italians would in a heatwave and leave the city. "Let’s just go to the nearest body of water," I say. So we hire a car and drive to Bracciano – a lake town about 45 minutes away.
The car smells like hot plastic and I navigate badly. "Just follow the dot," he shouts. "But the roads are all overlapping," I cry back. He snatches the phone from my hand and holds it for the rest of the journey. I look out of the window at the parched Italian countryside, the colour of vanilla gelato.
We arrive at 7pm with nowhere to stay but are buoyed by a flaming sunset, castle and glittering lake. Drinking Aperol in the cobbled square, beneath the clocktower, he tells me that "Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise got married here."
"Oh...cool," I reply. "Bodes well for us."
I’d suggested we check for available rooms before leaving Rome but he said it would be fine, that there was bound to be somewhere. It is dark, the hiss-hiss night sounds of insects are loud and I am drunk again by the time he looks up from his phone. "There don’t seem to be any hotels available…"
I sigh and mutter, "Probably should have booked somewhere…"
There are shoots of love, though, I think, budding out of the manure.
He looks up at me: "You are the most frustrating...I hate you so much." And then he gets up and walks away. I sit for a moment with this news. We’d both suspected that we might hate each other. Our conversations were often fractious, rife with miscommunication. To say it out loud though… The watery yellow light from the bar makes the cobbles threatening; I feel like if I try to walk, I’ll trip and embarrass myself. And, I realize, I’ve got nowhere to walk to. I start to cry. Because I’m in this beautiful place, with a man who hates me.
He comes back, materializing out of the darkness. "Oh god, don’t cry." He pats my hand. "Okay sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you." He pats up my arm, then my shoulder. "Sorry?" he holds the half-empty glass of Aperol spritz up to my face.
"Why are you trying to placate me with Aperol spritz?" I cry loudly.
"I don’t know!" he cries back. "I don’t know what else to do!" We both start to laugh.
"Can I just look for somewhere?" I ask. He passes me his phone and 10 minutes later I find an Airbnb.
The next two days we call a truce. We both make an effort. There aren’t many tourists, but the ones that are there seem to be on honeymoon. We haven’t even been dating long enough to be in our honeymoon phase, let alone on an actual honeymoon.
Every so often, walking down a higgledy cobbled street with flowers erupting from hanging baskets above our heads and little, fat Italian grandpas shooting the breeze over coffee and cigarettes, we look at each other, confused. Why did two strangers come here together? "We’ve got quite a sibling vibe, haven’t we?" he says at one point.
I don't know if you should go on holiday with someone you've just met but I do know that you cannot manufacture intimacy.
"That’s gross," I say back. "You’re just an antagonist."
There are shoots of love, though, I think, budding out of the manure. On the last night, eating dinner in a restaurant over the lake, he looks at me and says: "I think one of us is going to get hurt." I say nothing, but I know that what he means is: "I think I really like you." Then, the electricity in the town goes out, plunging us into pitch darkness. The waitress lights hundreds of candles and somewhere a violin starts playing. I wonder whether it’s the rich truffle pasta or the romance that is giving me a stomach ache.
That was two years ago.
Instead of going back to my own flat after the trip, I went back to his. "Can’t get enough of me…" he said. He seemed smug and a little put out.
I don’t know if you should go on holiday with someone you’ve just met but I do know that you cannot manufacture intimacy – it takes time for someone to learn that you are bad at navigating, even when it just means following the dot, hate sightseeing, or that an arm pat (or an Aperol spritz) is no substitute for a hug when you are upset.
We defied our own predictions. We were together for two years, only breaking up recently. In the messy months after that trip, we oscillated – sometimes I was the bad one, sometimes he was. In the end, though, we both got hurt. But I guess we’ll always have Rome.