Brad Shurmantine

Fairy Tale

Once upon a time, forty-five years ago, I spent a weekend in Rome with a woman named Judith. It wasn’t an affair or a romance; it was too fleeting for that. But it wasn’t a fling either, or a dalliance, or a “liaison.” It was a fairy tale, for adults. One that began when the princess kissed the frog, and suddenly they were two young lovers reaching for each other.

I met her in Eugenio’s tiny apartment near Piazza San Marco in Florence. Ten of us were crammed into his living room, sipping Chianti from heavy glass tumblers and talking loudly. The only person I knew was Eugenio. He worked in a bookstore I frequented on Via Tornabuoni, one with a sizable collection of books in English. I had struck up a slight friendship with Eugenio because he spoke English, with a Scottish accent.

I was tucked away in a corner, alert and wary—wary because I was in a cramped room full of young and cool Italians, alert because I wanted to impress them. But mostly I was gazing at a woman sitting in a chair across from me, an Englishwoman, who was less flamboyant than the Italians. Still, her green eyes danced. She easily joined in on the lively bilingual banter, the teasing and jokes, many of which went over my head. But the woman laughed along, and her laughter was magical.

I was twenty-three. After spending my final year of college in Florence, I decided to stay. I had no prospects back home and wanted to see if I could make myself into a writer. Eugenio probably invited me to his party because he felt sorry for me. I was pretty much alone in Florence, which is why I spent so much time in his bookstore. I had a few American friends, teachers from the school I had attended, but rarely saw them. My survival Italian, and my inherent shyness, made it nearly impossible for me to make new friends. But I was getting by. I worked in a leather goods store across the street from the Roman theater in Fiesole. Comfortably inhabiting a persona I had created, I thought I was an expatriate poet and budding intellectual. Because I had no friends, I read a lot, and I was passionate about what I read.

The conversation turned to American politics. Italians loved to argue about American politics more than their own, especially with Americans. Since I was the only American in the room, I ingratiated myself by confirming many of their prejudices. By challenging others, I thought I would also win their respect. Then we veered off into literature, and they asked me who was the greatest American writer. I said Faulkner, of course. But the writer I wanted to talk about was Thomas Pynchon, because I was reading him at the time. No one else in the room had read him, so I spoke confidently and enthusiastically about Pynchon. Between Gravity’s Rainbow and Jimmy Carter, I held the floor for fifteen minutes, then withdrew when I ran out of steam.

Judith said little as I talked, but smiled and nodded along with everyone else. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was a European sales representative for Macmillan (that’s how Eugenio knew her). Definitely a grown-up, unlike me. She was in her early thirties, slender, with shoulder-length blonde hair that was almost white, and a face like Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. She wore an emerald green cashmere sweater dress that matched her eyes, and black leather boots that came up to her knees. I was acutely conscious of my own clothes—layers of flea market sweaters, jeans and desert boots. A beast in comparison.

Eventually she stood to say her goodbyes; she had calls to make in the morning. I followed her out. It was late and raining, and I had to drive home on my motorcycle. Being in the company of vivid, successful people made me feel shabby. I had been infatuated with Judith all evening while believing she was several cuts above me. We reached the vestibule of the palazzo, not yet having spoken to each other, and stepped outside. Judith opened her umbrella. I didn’t have one.

“Are you catching a bus?” she asked.

“No, I have a motorcycle.”

“I’ll walk you to it,” she said, sharing her umbrella. We huddled beneath it and crossed the street. My motorino was parked with others next to the bus stop.

“I’ll wait with you until your bus comes,” I told her. We stood together under her umbrella while I made desperate small talk. Her bus finally appeared down the block.

“Judith,” I said, and waited until she looked up at me. “I’ve been watching you all night. I couldn’t take my eyes off you. You’re so beautiful.” I wasn’t original or clever; I just put my heart on the table, all in. I felt like a goose relieved of a heavy egg, and fully expected the sophisticated woman to chop my head off. But her eyes widened in surprise, her lips slightly parted, and we gazed at each other, transfixed by the golden, glowing thing between us.

Her bus pulled up, breaking the spell. She closed her umbrella and stepped on. As the doors swung shut, she turned and looked at me, and didn’t move when the bus pulled away.

I rode home in the rain, and wrote that night about another missed connection.

But the next day the phone rang while I stood behind the counter at work, thinking about her. “Bruno, it’s for you,” my boss shouted. They called me Bruno in the shop, easier to say than Brad.

It was Judith. She had tracked me down through Eugenio. She was going to be in Florence for one more day and wanted to spend some time with me. Was I available? Uh, yes. Yes I was. Yes, I was most certainly available.

The next day I donned my very best attire—flannel pants, my most expensive flea market sweater, and a corduroy sport coat—and met her in Piazza Vecchio. We spent the day visiting churches (her request), strolling through the Boboli Gardens, and talking. Oh we talked. Not about literature or politics—about our lives. In Santa Croce we sat together in a pew and she confessed her fear that she was wasting her life. “I’m thirty-three and I’ve accomplished nothing. No house, no husband. Nothing. Look what Jesus Christ accomplished when he was thirty-three.”

I pointed out to her that Christ was actually a colossal failure at thirty-three. “He was deserted by his friends, reviled by the crowd, and hung on a cross. You’re doing pretty good in comparison.” Somehow that response mattered to her.

She took me to the best restaurant in which I had ever eaten, and then she took me back to her hotel. She held my hand as she led me down the hallway, and I felt like Pinocchio, turning into a real boy. In her room we stood by her window, which looked out on the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio. We kissed. I knelt down and unzipped her boots and she stepped out of them. Then I stood and unwrapped her slowly and reverently, amazed that such a woman could desire me despite everything I had told her. I had shared my deepest insecurities about my writing and my future, and still she folded me in her arms.

Early the next morning I kissed her goodbye. We made no plans to ever see each other again. She was heading off to Rome to finish her sales trip, then home to London. I walked along the Arno in a happy daze, thinking, I’m a poet. These things happen to poets.

A few days later the phone rang at work and again my boss said, “Bruno, it’s for you.” Judith was calling to tell me she had wrapped up her work in Rome early and had the weekend free. Did I want to come down and spend it with her?

The next morning she met me at the train station. I deliberately waited until everyone left the platform, and then I sauntered out. My juvenile posturing apparently worked; her face lit up when she saw me. “I thought you weren’t coming,” she said, and we kissed.

We took a cab (a cab! what extravagance) to an elegant four-star hotel near the Trevi Fountain where she was staying, in the heart of Rome. I had never been in such a hotel before; I was a hostel guy. Her room was huge and sunlit. I took a shower in her glass and marble bathroom, then joined her in bed. It was where we spent most of that day, mostly talking. We emerged for a late lunch at a wonderful restaurant near the Spanish Steps, where I tasted Osso Bucco for the first time. I had never had a secondo, a main course, for lunch before; actually, I had rarely had a secondo at all. I couldn’t afford them. Afterwards we sat on the steps beneath the room where Keats died. I told her all about Keats, and recited lines of his from memory:

That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim

We locked eyes as I spoke. “Now more than ever seems it rich to die,” I declaimed, a kid from Missouri, who actually wasn’t all that ready to expire.

While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!

Judith was mesmerized. “That’s what’s missing from my life,” she told me. “Poetry.”

The next day we wandered through Rome, Judith’s Rome. It was her favorite city. We avoided the tourist traps. She took me to little churches and gardens, fountains and quiet, shady piazzas deemed unworthy of mention in travel guides. We walked hand-in-hand, often in silence, happy together. She showed me her city, like Ariel leading Eric by the hand through Triton’s underwater kingdom. We’d hover before some building or watery grotto and she’d tell me why she loved it. Then we’d swim slowly off to the next silent wonder.

That night, we visited an old friend of Judith’s from London, a true expatriate who had taken up permanent residency in Rome. She was older than Judith, perhaps one of her mother’s friends. She was alone and seemed worn down by her life. We sat beside a little fireplace in her cold apartment and she fed pinecones to the fire to warm us. She didn’t have firewood; she had a sack of pinecones.

Judith spoke fondly of the woman when we left. She did not disparage her. But I sensed that she saw in her a possible fate, a conceivable outcome to her own life, and it frightened her. Maybe that was one reason she drew me in; I convinced her of her utter desirability, proof she wouldn’t grow old and alone.

The next morning we had breakfast together in the hotel’s ornate dining room. Beneath immense chandeliers, we held hands and gazed urgently into each other’s eyes. We promised to write and keep in touch. At the curb, we clung together beside her leather suitcases and my knapsack. Judith kept urging me to leave and catch my bus, so I wouldn’t miss my train. But I didn’t want to leave her until she was on her way to the airport. Her taxi arrived and we hugged and kissed one last time. When her cab disappeared, I was in a panic to get to the train station on time. I barely made it. I ran onto the platform and yelled at the conductor to hold the train. He gave me a dirty look and I scrambled aboard.

I left no glass slipper behind.

For a month or two after our glorious weekend in Rome we exchanged feverish letters. She entreated me to come to London, telling me I could stay with her as long as I liked. I didn’t have the money to do that. Plus, my mother and sister had made arrangements to visit me in Florence that summer, so I had to stay put. But the idea of living with Judith in London burned in my brain. I spent hours imagining the possibilities.

In her final letter, Judith came to her senses and broke things off. I half-expected it to happen. Already, the weekend in Rome seemed like a dream. In the letter, Judith was cool and deliberate. She thanked me for spending time with her, said I was a dear, dear man. But her business obligations made it impossible for her to host me. She had no idea when she would be returning to Italy. Probably not for a year or two. Apart from me, up north in chilly England, her life had resumed its clear and proper routines. The Snow Queen had spoken.

Once the book is closed, the handsome prince becomes a frog again. It’s his true nature after all, and a frog’s life isn’t so bad.

It took a few months, but I, too, came to accept the inevitability of our parting. I would never have fit into her world, other than as a boy toy. Judith was not a woman who would trifle with a man like that. I would not have let her.

But she was generous and loving that weekend, and I gave her everything I had to give. I stupidly tossed the three letters she wrote me, proof that it had actually happened. I didn’t remember her last name, so I couldn’t even google her, which I certainly would have done. It would have given me the greatest pleasure to track down her profile, see pictures of her husband and children, her home in Wembley or Watford. Just to assure myself that she wasn’t alone, feeding pinecones to a fire.

© Brad Shurmantine

Brad Shurmantine lives in Napa, California, where he tends sand, water, and vegetable gardens, chickens, and bee hives. His fiction and personal essays have appeared in Monday Night, Flint Hills Review, and Catamaran; his poetry in Third Wednesday, Cacti Fur, and Blue Lake Review. Website:

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